Creative++ Attracts Participants with Non-Tech Backgrounds


On a recent weekend, 32 students and community members joined for the first Creative++ jam, where participants formed teams and collaborated to design and build creative technology projects. Some were artists and musicians. Others were computer scientists. Some of the participants had no programming experience.

But they all had one thing in common: a desire to express themselves with new technologies.

“Creative++ brought together people of different cultures, backgrounds, disciplines and ages to build creative technology projects,” said Monica Bolles, a master’s student in the Creative Technologies and Design track. Bolles organized the event with ATLAS doctoral student, Annie Kelly.

 The event was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (CNS-1562030), which funded Assistant Professor Ben Shapiro and his students to research new creative pathways into computer science. Shapiro, whose tenure home is Computer Science, leads ATLAS’s Laboratory for Playful Computation. The event was run in collaboration with the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, which provided the space and staff support.

Creative++ attracted majors from ethnic studies to mechanical engineers and students from CU Boulder, Colorado School of Mines, CU Denver and a local high school. It was a diverse group culturally, and almost 45 percent were female. Ages ranged from high school students to a woman in her 70s. 

“One of the main goals of the event was to empower women to get creative with technology and programming,” Kelly said.

The event’s only constraint was to build projects with BlockyTalky, an educational toolkit created by the Laboratory for Playful Computation. BlockyTalky teaches modern computer programming and networking by inspiring users to build creative and meaningful projects. It also allows users to rapidly prototype new interactive devices through connection of a wide variety of sensors and a drag-and-drop browser-based programming interface. It easily interoperates with a wide variety of other technologies. 

It’s designed to be easy for beginners to use, and powerful enough to be expanded for those experienced with developing creative technology projects.

“Though most of our past work with BlockyTalky has been with middle school students, we are now exploring BlockyTalky as not just a tool for children, but also as a toolkit that can empower adults to invent their own creative interfaces,” said Kelly, who has been the lead developer for BlockyTalky since 2015.

In less than 12 hours, participants developed roughly a dozen projects. They included a game that resembled a pyramid with a voice offering clues, such as to touch the pyramid with a wet hand or shine a light on it to move to the next level.  In another project, the closer the player moved toward a plate of cookies, the closer a shark projected on the ceiling would move toward the player, while theme music from the movie “Jaws” would get louder. Another project involved using sign language to control a synthesizer.

“What’s nice about BlockyTalky is you can build new ways of interfacing with things very quickly,” Bolles said. “It’s an easy way to try out different ideas in one learning curve.

“Everybody had a really a great time. They all learned a lot. They worked together. Everyone had a role.”