Learning Scientists Bring Computer Coding Basics to Museums

Learning Scientists Bring Computer Coding Basics to Museums


An interactive tabletop experience that teaches the basics of computer coding is under development in collaboration with Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry as part of a national effort to bring computing out of the classroom and into informal learning spaces.

The program, called TuneTable, was developed by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Northwestern University to help students learn what computer programming actually is and to address the national need for increased computer programming literacy among K-12 students.

“It’s also about changing the attitude about computation and exposing it to people that might not have sought it out otherwise,” said project lead Brian Magerko, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. “Kids can be playful and social, just by walking up and giving it a try. Hopefully some will think it is a cool, new way to express themselves.”

TuneTable is a stepping stone to a software program called EarSketch, which teaches Python and Javascript and was designed by Magerko and Georgia Tech College of Design Professor Jason Freeman.

EarSketch, used in nearly 200 high school across the country, uses digital audio workstations and the programming languages to manipulate loops and compose music, including hip hop and electronic dance music. TuneTable reimagines this experience within a museum exhibit that will be showcased around the country.

Once the exhibit arrives in museums, people will be able to create their own music and email it to themselves or access it on the internet.

As part of the project, Northwestern’s Mike Horn (pictured) is designing a tablet version of the software called TunePad to allow museum visitors to continue tinkering with the code once they arrive home.

“The tablet app is a crucial connection point between what kids experience at the museum with TuneTable and what they learn in school with EarSketch,” said Horn, associate professor and director of the Tangible Interaction Design and Learning Laboratory (TIDAL). “We want it to give kids space and time to build up foundational computational literacy skills before the deep dive into learning Python or JavaScript.”

How TuneTable Works

TuneTable, which will debut at the Museum of Design Atlanta in early 2017, includes basic computing programming elements that people would use when learning programming formally for the first time, such as iteration and go-to statements.

Students move coasters along the table’s projection surface, then tap the surface to play a series of beats, beeps and loops.

TuneTable’s interactive surface uses computer vision to detect printed markers — called fiducials —  on the coasters. Each coaster is assigned a sound or command. People link them together to form a chain of electronic and hip hop sounds.  

“Manipulating notes, chords and rests requires some knowledge of music theory,” said Magerko, who also leads Georgia Tech’s Adaptive Digital Media lab. “Instead, we’re opting to manipulate music samples with code. And certain genres, such as electronic and hip hop, map very well computationally.”

Magerko said they’re also very appealing to underserved populations, such as women, African-Americans and Latinos.

Horn, who has a joint appointment in the Learning Sciences and Computer Science at Northwestern, uses emerging interactive technology to design novel learning experiences. His projects include the design and evaluation of a tangible computer programming language for use in science museums and early elementary school classrooms; and the design of multi-touch tabletop exhibits for use in natural history museums.

“We’re not going too deep with TuneTable and TunePad; it’s just to give people a taste,” Horn said. “It’s more about changing attitudes and perceptions about what computer programming is, what it can be used to do, and who can call themselves programmer.”

The project was supported in part by a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation. 

Learn more about Northwestern's Learning Sciences program.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 3/3/17