Researchers have built an interactive table that uses beats and samples to teach the basics of computer programming.

They’ll install the device, called TuneTable, in museums in Atlanta and Chicago in 2017, giving K-12 students a chance to try it.

“It’s also about changing the attitude about computation and exposing it to people that might not have sought it out otherwise,” says project lead Brian Magerko, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. “Hopefully some of them will think it is a cool, new way to express themselves.”

The table includes basic computing programming elements that people would use when learning programming formally for the first time, such as iteration and go-to statements.

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

“Manipulating notes, chords, and rests requires a lot of music theory knowledge,” says 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.”

‘Playful and social’

TuneTable builds on an earlier project by Magerko and colleagues: a software program called EarSketch that teaches Python and Javascript at nearly 200 high schools across the country. EarSketch students use digital audio workstations and the programming languages to manipulate loops and compose music. TuneTable reimagines this experience within a museum exhibit.

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“The table allows us bring the basics of computer programming out of the classroom and into more informal settings such as museums,” says Jason Freeman, a Georgia Tech College of Design professor and a co-principal investigator on the grant from the National Science Foundation. “Kids can be playful and social, just by walking up and giving it a try.”

Once the exhibit arrives in museums, people will be able to create their own music and email it to themselves. They can continue tinkering with the code when they get home using EarSketch or a tablet version of the software, which is being designed by Northwestern University’s Mike Horn.

“We see the tablet app as a crucial connection point between what kids experience at the museum with TuneTable and what they learn in school with EarSketch,” says Horn. “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.”


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