Computer as Chalk: Cultivating and Sustaining Communities of Youth as Designers of Tangible User Interfaces

Millner, A. "Computer as Chalk: Cultivating and Sustaining Communities of Youth as Designers of Tangible User Interfaces"


My research efforts focus primarily on two areas: (1) developing engaging technological tools that promote learning and creative expression and (2) designing supportive environments that invite broad participation with these technologies. In this dissertation, I argue that the ways in which people use chalk (e.g., drawing hopscotch grids) can serve as an inspiration for rethinking how people can harness the expressive power of computational technologies. Today's computing devices have the potential to enhance expressive activities for diverse groups in similar ways that chalk does, but that potential has yet to be realized.

At the core of my research is the Hook-ups System, a set of technologies and activities designed to enable young people to create interactive experiences by programming connections between physical and digital media. With it, young people integrate sensors with various materials to create tangible interfaces for controlling images and sounds in computer programs that they themselves create. For example, a 10-year-old created a paper-plate-based flying saucer, added a sensor, then wrote a program to control an animated flying saucer image on the computer screen.

A framework called the Constellation of Connected Creators emerged from my work with the Hook-ups System. It provides facilitators with strategies for introducing technological tools and activities to communities of learners. It identifies several roles that both facilitators and participants adopt over time to sustain youth engagement in technologyrich learning activities: creator, co-learner, collaborator, coach, and colleague.

This dissertation reports on my investigation that took place in two after-school technology centers over a five-year period. Two sets of questions guided my inquiry. The first set probed how attributes of the Hook-ups System enabled diverse audiences to engage in building personally meaningful projects, express themselves, and transform how they approached design. The second set examined which strategies were successful for using the Constellation of Connected Creators to establish a culture in which facilitators engaged groups of newcomers, cultivated future facilitators and supported their successors.

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