Operation: Stick Figure Army turns 2D teaching into 3D learning


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In Meadville, Pennsylvania, it's snowing. And when we get lake effect snow this many days in a row, the only thing to be done is to pour a cup of hot chocolate, put your feet up by the fire, and tell a yarn about open source in education.

Specifically, I'm going to tell you a story of how the research and development work of two women in computer science is going to be transformed into a service to support blind students in the classroom by 20 first-years at Allegheny College. And we need your support.

Once upon a time

In May of 2008 (it was sunny and warm back then), I asked two women enrolled in my programming languages course if they'd like to do some research the following year. Over the next few weeks Stephanie and Sara read up on and assembled a proposal for the Collaborative Research Experiences for Undergraduates programme. Although I tell a mean story, the CREU website does a decent job of describing the programme:

The goal of this initiative is to increase the numbers of women and minorities who continue on to graduate school in computer science, engineering, and allied disciplines. The program, called Collaborative Research Experience for Undergraduates (CREU), is designed to provide positive research experiences for teams of undergraduates who will work during the academic year and optionally the following summer at their home institutions (provided they haven't graduated before the summer).

Their proposal was titled Operation: Stick Figure Army. They envisioned doing user-centered work to develop a simple interface for artists to explore (doodle, even) 3D printing. Later that year, after a conversation with my colleague Peter DePasquale at The College of New Jersey, we realized that their project, with only minor changes, would be well suited to supporting blind students in the computing classroom. 

We collaborated with Peter and one of his students over the course of the academic year, and during the summer Sara and Stephanie brought their project to a successful conclusion. Their year of effort is chronicled on their blog (aptly titled Operation: Stick Figure Army, or OSFA for short). Sara and Stephanie later presented their work as a poster at the 2010 Grace Hopper Celebration, which was an excellent experience for both of them.

The end result? Stephanie and Sara produced software that, under Linux, could convert an image into a 3D model suitable for printing on a Makerbot CupCake CNC printer.

From open software to open hardware

The Cupcake CNC is an example of open hardware: the design, from its electronics to its physical build, is licensed in an open manner. Given its low cost and small size (compared to many commercial 3D printers), it is possible to introduce students to the marvels of modern manufacture on a budget, even in the classroom. 

As a member of the Teaching Open Source community, I've watched the evolution of the POSSE programme as it reaches out to computer science faculty around the world. However, computer science graduates make up a very small percentage of the graduates of higher education, and I want to find ways for more students from more backgrounds to experience the benefits and rewards of communicating with and contributing to free and open source communities.

It is hard work, finding ways to introduce fundamentally non-technical students into open communities that assume, coming in the door, that you know how to use a version control system. While projects like OpenHatch are excellent, I find myself looking for more tangible ways to get students from outside computing involved in things they can see and feel.

That's where Operation: Stick Figure Army comes in.

Making the future

The challenge that 20 first-year students are going to tackle next semester as part of FS102: Making the Future is the development of a sustainable way to accept images from blind students and the educators who support them, generate 3D prints of those drawings, and then post them back—at no cost—to the recipients. 

The students in Making the Future are going to face some significant challenges, and they'll be doing research and putitng it into practice as they go. We have some potential users, but how do we get the word out to more educators and students? What are the critical costs, and how do we manage those in the long term? How do you build an open community around tools that have both software and hardware components? These are not "toy" questions, and I'm excited that I'm able to give students real-world challenges to tackle as part of their first-year college experience. (And we can continue to work on this project semester after semester, year after year, which is great.)

We have the software, we have the people, and we have the space and infrastructure to make this happen. What we need is a robust 3D printer. So, we're launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund the purchase of a Makerbot Thing-O-Matic.

As an educator, this is about the best I can do. I had the opportunity to mentor two hard-working women in the development of a challenging project end-to-end. Now, we're able to take the product of their efforts and turn it into something that gives back again in many new ways, all leveraging open tools and, I hope, ultimately building a new open community of learners and developers.

We'll see where it goes. We hope you're willing to help support this project. Even if not, make sure you keep your eyes open to see what the students do next. I'm pretty sure it will be exciting.

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1 Comment

andrespn elon's picture

I want to find ways for more students from more backgrounds to experience the benefits and rewards of communicating with and contributing to free and open source communities. e okul
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