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Notes on a Spring Break Camp

Notes on a Spring Break Camp

Hello readers! 

Jake here. I am the Manager of Youth Tinkering Programs at the Exploratorium, the bread and butter of which is Tinkering Afterschool - a long-running partnership that we have maintained with the Boys & Girls Clubs of SF for many years and which pivots around weekly workshop+making experiences with youth at these community spaces and employs a team of young adult / early career educators who were all once participants in our Community Youth Programs themselves. Like much of the other work and projects of the Tinkering Studio team, our program operates from a baseline of material-focused explorations and interactions with STEAM and scientific phenomena but plusses these things with an additional and pronounced focus on ethnic craft practices and lineages and on ways youth wield prior knowledge and aspects of their identities in their learning over the course of short- to long-term engagements of many weeks, many months, sometimes even many years. 

We recently wrapped a weeklong all-day Spring Break camp experience with two of our core Clubhouse partners - Don Fisher Clubhouse and Visitacion Valley Clubhouse - and spent substantial time focused on just two projects. The first was Stab Book Bindings & Embroidered Book Covers, which unites a sewing/embroidery practice applied to book binding and construction (which we'll explore in a later post). The second, and the subject of this post, was around usage of the OctoStudio app that has been covered a lot in this blog that we introduced to our programs and to our community of youth for the very first time during this camp. This post is a collaborative write-up and reflection amongst our active facilitation team, including: 

Adolfo Barrales, On-Call Facilitator 
Wilson Wong, Tinkering II Facilitator
Jake Montano, Manager of Youth Tinkering Programs


What is OctoStudio & What Was Our Prompt? 

Hey all, my name is Wilson Wong and I am a Tinkering II Facilitator and program lead for Tinkering Afterschool (TAS). I've been both an alum and a facilitator in this program for a decade now! I'd like to refer to this article on a different project for OctoStudio (Tinker With a View) to provide you with an explainer on what OctoStudio is. Our project for this introductory activity was adapted from one we've been R&D'ing called Bring a Book to Life! This project involves snapping images from various children's picture books in order to create different sprites that inspire ideas around storytelling and the mechanics of interactivity in a digital environment. Youth also snapped some photos of things and other people around the room so they took inspiration from the whole room. Using code blocks, youth made up whole entire stories both inspired by the books that they read or something they come up with from them or on their own. They then made games and interactive choose-your-own-adventure stories. 

Below are some reflections from three specific student-made projects that came together during our camp sessions. There are many more projects made by kids, which you can access and download onto your own personal devices here, but we have chosen just to revisit a few. 


This project is a culmination of a student's exploration of OctoStudio. Following a brief introduction to the fundamental functions that are built into OctoStudio, student Ciara was brimming with possible elements to incorporate into her project -- elements all centered around the storytelling of her project. Whilst not limited by the possible directions to take her project to, novel programmer Ciara found herself perplexed by how to actually implement her ideas into the project. Realizing that OctoStudio did not understand commands and orders like, "I want [my character] Larry to turn blue when I press the button," or "I want Larry to turn into a pea," she seemed intimidated by the prospect of having to translate her ideas into the language of code and programming. 

However, after brainstorming with other students and staff members, and some demonstrations of some of the built-in function blocks, she began to take her first steps into stacking blocks together until she was able to change the color of her character Larry, who was ripped straight from the book she took inspiration from. After changing Larry's color, she wanted to figure out how to sync the color-changing to when she pressed the button icon. And after a demonstration of using the "when tapped" block for the button sprite, she was able to get the ball rolling. Upon which, she collaborated with a staff member, asking clarifying questions for what each block did, and asking a facilitator debugging questions with her code, and the story of Larry and the button began to expand. 

Although the video here does not include Ciara's live vocal narration (which she provided to us in our tinkering space) as the events unfold in her book, you can still see the different elements of coding she explored in her book through the demo -- watching all changes Larry undergoes as we pressed the button. Her first exploration into the world of coding resulted in a project rich with the various functions and commands that OctoStudio comes with, and though limited by the single-day session we formatted our camp with for the app, she was able to overcome the initial challenge of learning a new skill. 


Something that had come up that we didn't quite play around with during our R&D of the project was taking pictures of things that weren't from the books we intended for the group to read, and all three of us facilitators in the room were asked to have our photos taken at various times for the youth projects. The two kids that I worked alongside when I sat down to help them very quickly made their entire project about me and an entire adventure they created! OctoStudio turned out to be a lot more intuitive than even I had thought from their perspective, and the kids first made about three different scenes in order for me to "eat a hamburger," and "go to the bathroom." They had split themselves up to accomplish their project: one of them doing a lot of the code and the other coming up with the idea for the next scene, drawing new sprites, recording various voices. Occasionally they would switch off, but only for a short while. They had self-identified with these roles, and really took off with it. The flow was generally that they would both come up with an idea for a new scene (sometimes, but not always, with input from me their main character!), and then they would both separate into trying to make the code work, and scrolling through the sprites trying to see if something would fit what they were looking for. If they didn't find something it would generally get drawn themselves. 

The tricky thing for this project was getting the timing right for everything. There was about eight different times that the project would transition, and sometimes some of their dialogue would come way too early, or the skis wouldn't slide along with my legs in the sprite they created, of the background wouldn't switch out with them, so there was a lot of trial and error, and playing the project again every time they made a change just to make sure the change they had ended up implementing actually did what they intended it to do. Most of the assistance that I ended up providing would be reminding them about how certain blocks worked, or saying what I would do next (as the protagonist of their story), and offering up new ideas for things things to be sprites. 


When we brought our materials to Visitacion Valley Clubhouse, which included children's books in addition to our fleet of smart devices, to motivate ideas and inspiration for storytelling, we noticed early on that many of the youth participants were quite enamored by the feature that allowed them to upload their own imagery - whether from photos or remixes of images taken from online - to create the animation-ready sprites. Often this meant that they recorded themselves or others in the room and turned projects into humorous portraits of the group dynamics of the space, or as caricatures of themselves. But Joanne, who had read Dance is for Everyone, by Andrea Zuill, as her first (and only) book during our Free Reading Time segment that morning, had settled on the idea of adapting this story into an interactive and video-based project through OctoStudio. She especially loved that the main character looked like her, and that the story was told mostly through dialogue and interactions between the students and their dance instructor. The approach for her project was to reproduce and riff on these exchanges and the dialogue into something that was distinctly her own. 

Executing on making this dialogue happen was much more tricky than she or I thought. Initially, the three main characters - Joanne the student, Tonya the alligator, and Ms. Iraina the instructor - were all "talking" at the same time from the uploaded sprites she made from snapping their photos from the book. And though I had shown and demonstrated the Send and Receive function blocks in the array of coding possibilities in the app, their workings or syntax were not immediately clicking or feeling clear to Joanne (our youth participant). I fount it helpful to use an analogy in this case to help her creative process: that she was the director of a play and that the sprites she uploaded of the characters from the book were all actors still mostly unfamiliar with the script. So, it was her job as writer-director to not only construct and refine the dialogue that formed her story, but to also program - or direct - when each actor was supposed to recite their line. We even acted this out a little bit from the perspective of each character in the earliest stages. This helped Joanne to understand how to utilize the Send and Receive blocks, and she began to move with increasing speed to add more and more movement and interaction. 

Embedded here in this post is a segment of her overall project. A different version included a second setting in the story from the book, which was the stage for a recital and the climax of the inspiring story, but Joanna ultimately decided to simplify her creation in the moments leading up to our end-of-day showcase due to shortage of time. Still, the project featured here was quite a to-do and Joanne was giddy with excitement that she was able to build a flow of dialogue across multiple characters in a way that satisfyingly adapted the book's major beats. There are also a few movement cues and animations in this video that Joanne worked hard to program inbetween sets of diagloue or right alongside them so that they matched the flow of the narrative and the humorous absurdity of an alligator joining a dance class. 


We hope you enjoy these video depictions and spend some time downloading others onto your own device to modify and explore!