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An Illuminating Introduction to Data and Design

By Rob Mitchum // August 11, 2014

With its svelte oval shape, customizable acrylic shell, and interactive LED lighting, the Looplamp looks like a product you would find in a high-end furniture catalog. But this summer, the shoebox-sized “smart” devices are helping Chicago high school students get hands-on experience with digital fabrication, programming, and — most importantly — how they can interact with data to learn more about their community and improve it in surprising and innovative ways.

Over six weeks this summer, in the downtown offices of the Data Science for Social Good Fellowship, students working with Computation Institute research centers and the Englewood Codes program built their own Looplamps from scratch — from schematic to laser cutting to software. The project offers a rare combination of building and coding, exposing students to new industries that will be increasingly important to future employment in Chicago and elsewhere.

“Chicago is in this really interesting moment where we’re becoming more of a tech city. So how do we introduce youth in Chicago to these opportunities?,” said Demond Drummer, creator of Englewood Codes at Teamwork Englewood. “Looplamp is this nice mix between design, rapid prototyping, and writing code. We’re doing a lot in six weeks to introduce the students to the whole spectrum of opportunity.”

The Looplamp was originally designed by Chicago-based digital manufacturing supplier Inventables and design firm Minimal as a means of introducing people to the growing “maker culture” — custom, accessible manufacturing using 3D printers, laser cutters, and other advanced tools. A subsequent collaboration of School of the Art Institute of Chicago students Miguel Perez, Brannon Dorsey, and Andrew Kaye with Matt Gee of the Data Science for Social Good Fellowship combined the Looplamp with a Raspberry Pi mini-computer to make the device “smart,” capable of interacting with and visualizing data inputs.

The original Looplamp design, by Samantha Alaimo

“We asked, how do we turn it from a cool lamp that kids could laser cut into something they could interact with, that would interact with them, that would help them learn more about the city in which they live and connect to it in a very real way?” Gee said.

At Chicago Ideas Week in 2013, participants constructed Looplamps that responded with a light pulse whenever the hashtag “#LightUpChicago” was used on Twitter. But the collaborators wanted to take the project one step further, using the lamp as an interactive, educational project that could introduce students to new technologies, computational methods, and the potential of an increasingly data-rich world.

From Squiggles to Smart Lamp

At the Data Science for Social Good Fellowship space in Chicago’s Loop, 48 undergraduate and graduate students spent the summer using data to solve complex problems in transportation, energy, health care and education. But two days a week, in one of the space’s conference rooms, the potential next generation of data scientists and technology developers were introduced to the digital tools used by today’s innovators.

In the first pilot six-week run of “In the Loop: A City Data and Digital Manufacturing STEM Learning Project,” students enrolled in Englewood Codes joined summer research interns from the Computation Institute’s Center for Robust Decision-Making on Climate and Energy Policy (RDCEP) and Knowledge Lab in building their own Looplamps. Though the students were given the original schematic for the lamp developed by Inventables, Minimal, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago students, they were encouraged to create their own design, and charged with cutting the acrylic shells themselves at the Chicago Public Library’s new Maker Lab and the CI’s Hack Arts Lab.

“We decided to let the students hack every piece of the project,” said Alison Brizius, executive director at RDCEP. “We didn’t just take their pieces and designs and come back with manufactured lamps. We’re trying to empower them to interact with data and build a device that tells them something useful about their environment.”

Carah Alexander and Amanda Zhang assemble their custom-cut acrylic designs to the Looplamp base.

The customization went beyond the physical design of the Looplamps to the software they ran, with students writing code to drive the LED light patterns using a variety of data inputs. RDCEP students programmed their lamps to run off of energy data provided by household “smart meters,” changing color according to the amount of power used by a home. Others modified the device’s Twitter-responsive functions to monitor trending topics in sports, music, or science, or discussed the possibility of using data from the Chicago Transit Authority’s bus tracker to change the lamp’s color and alert coffee shop customers when a bus was approaching.

“It’s great to see how engaged and how excited the kids are to take something that was just a bunch of squiggles on a computer screen and see it come to life and be something they can hold,” Gee said. “That’s the magic of digital manufacturing: you can take things from a vision to reality so quickly.”

Students entered the class with a wide range of computer science experience, ranging from those who took programming courses in high school to those new to coding and design tools. But all came away with a new interest in the possibilities of working with data and digital fabrication.

“I’ve always though of computer science as naturally a foray into other fields of study, so to do something that’s a union of computer science and things like design and social science, it’s really intellectually stimulating and interesting,” said Jack Reece, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago Lab School.

“When you tell your friends you are programming lamps, it doesn’t really make sense, so you have to go into further detail,” said Kiela Moreno, a student at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. “When I say I programmed a lamp to display the city’s data, it makes you sound really smart.”

“It showed me how relevant these data analysis techniques are in practically every field,” said Amanda Zhang, a student at Whitney Young High School. “It made me realize how important this is, in today’s age where we are able to collect so much information, and that we can really learn a lot by using these techniques. I just dipped my toes in it, and I feel like there’s so much more out there.”

Kimarah Brown shows off her completed Looplamp

Expanding the Loop

Now that that first six-week course was successful, the Looplamp organizers are looking at different formats that can bring the educational experience to more students around Chicago and the rest of the state. A one- or two-day hackathon using some pre-fabricated components is one possibility; another is a curriculum designed around a “mobile makerspace” to bring fabrication technology to schools without those resources.

Future iterations of the Looplamp may add sensors to the device’s Raspberry Pi computer, so that the lamp can collect data — such as information about temperature or air pollution — as well as visualize it. The project will also evolve online as instructors and students share their work through Githubrepositories, following open source principles that allow outside collaborators to modify and build upon their work, or create similar courses anywhere in the world.

Regardless of its structure, the Looplamp project will hopefully open more students’ minds to the excitement of working with digital design and programming, preparing them for future education and employment opportunities in science, technology, and engineering.

“This project is giving kids an opportunity they might not otherwise have to build and tinker and figure out how the world works,” Gee said. “The more opportunities that we can create that are fun, that allow them to explore and catch that bug, the better off we’ll be — the more we’ll all benefit from the brilliant ideas and incredibly creative concepts that are coming out of these kids minds every day.”

Englewood Codes students Kyla Brown and Marquis Sewell present their lamps at the Southside Maker Faire in August.