LEGOs and Laser Cuts for Data Visualization
compileHer is a UChicago student organization that engages Chicago middle school girls with computer science. Their recent Capstone event featured educational activities created with various UChicago faculty. Prof. Gordon Kindlmann designed an activity to teach elements of data visualization, involving building a terrain out of LEGOs, covering the terrain with a box with a grid of holes, measuring the terrain height on that grid, and then designing and applying a colormap to visualize the data. The activity had been offered on a small scale before, using boxes made of cardboard, balsa wood, and duct tape, but now it had to be scaled up to accommodate nearly 40 students.
To make this happen, Gordon worked with Christina Ford (undergraduate in Computer Science) to fabricate the boxes out of MDF with the HAL laser cutters. They wrote a PostScript program to generate the box parts, as well as braces to hold the parts together for gluing. Iterating through designs was sped up by HAL being in the same Crerar building as Gordon’s office, as well as the helpful guidance from the HAL staff. Final steps included sanding, priming, and spray painting. The boxes worked great, and the girls made some cool visualizations.