Derek Ham, Assistant Professor, NC State University
Once students of design embrace computational thinking, the jump to learning computer coding is not so severe. For many design students, the most intimidating feature of coding is the abstracted and foreign nature of programming languages and the screen environments in which we write them. Integrated development environments (IDE’s) often lack the visual and dynamic qualities found in most design creation software. Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Dreamweaver are worlds apart. This paper shows a scaffold approach to learning computing principles through “shape grammars”, a method that has proven to be successful with design students. The process is analog by design, and requires students to use their hands, pencils, and tracing paper to manually carry out their computations. MIT Professor Terry Knight refers to this useful technique as, “slow computing.”
By giving students a methodology to visualize code outside of traditional syntactical structures, it enables them to think about code structures universally in ways that are both spatial and computational. The visual nature of the process allows them to be reflective and build deep understanding for computational systems. Students can think about code from new angles, and make mental connections with variables and rules. Spatial and visual thinking becomes the forefront and works in parallel with computational thinking. This type of tactile and visual programming is intrinsically useful to those who already think spatially.
Computational thinking expressed through visual systems is a great way to bridge the gap between computing and design education. Many concepts found in computing education could help expand design education and provide students with the skills necessary to be both visually artistic and analytically systematic. This research shows how we can use rules and algorithms intuitively to be aesthetically creative. For educators, this demonstrates how we can build algorithmic and analytical problem solving approaches into design studies.