I am very pleased that the Department is going ahead with my idea of developing a fun learning space with all sorts of nice gadgets for students to play with and develop applications for. I confess the idea came from reading one too many articles about the great work environment at Google, where instead of cubicles people have flexible spaces which encourage creativity.While I don’t think I can ask for funds to set up tents and Legos and balls for our students, at least we’ve been able to commit to buying some equipment to allow students to move away from only using workstations: so, therefore, a mixture of Kinects, touchscreens, tablets, mobile phones, and any other interactive hardware. Soon we started thinking about adding sensors and actuators, which have become quite popular and easy to program within the context of Arduino kits. And from there, we’ve also thought it would be nice to develop a sensor network, and use the lovely space in our building as a space for exploration. By “we”, above, I mean staff, unfortunately. So is this dream of having a fun space where students develop creative applications which will make it into a futuristic lifestyle yet another misunderstanding of what makes our young students tick? Some students I have been talking to seem excited enough, and they tell me that their colleagues are also quite excited about the idea. So I at least am convinced, and am in the process of creating a list of gadgets which will fit our budget and also thing through some details about how access to the equipment can work out in practice. But there is still the fear that any equipment we get will just gather dust.
(But if any reader of this blog has any ideas for this gadget space, whether of specific equipment or even how to manage access, I’d be very happy to hear from you.)While I’ve been developing the idea of the space and its equipment, one colleague introduced me to the whole world of hackerspaces: democratic spaces where people come together to work on personal projects, sharing ideas and expertise, and glowing with the buzz of being amongst like-minded people. This seemed like a perfect way of managing the ideas for the equipment above. My idea was never to restrict the gadgets only for formal work towards a taught module or a marked programming project, but to encourage free-style exploration. But for this style of learning to work, it needs to be nurtured: someone with the responsibility of having some initial workshops, some incentives to break the ice and work together, but coming not from a lecturer or formal trainer giving instructions and homeworks, but with a peer with passion. Hard to expect such a peer to also have the time and drive to make it work. I have asked for some University funding to hang in front of some students, hopefully we will get it and we can make use of some of the programming gurus in our student population in an effective way to create a culture of creativity. While talking of spaces, I thought I should also mention a very exciting development that the Department is getting involved in, which is CUSP: a Centre for Urban Science and Progress, to be set up… in New York! This is a collaboration between many universities and especially NYU, and the idea is to look at issues which directly affect urban life. I can’t help but feel that the idea of gadgets and interactive application are particularly important in this context. And hackerspaces seem particularly popular in urban spaces as a way to bring together people from all walks of life, not just students but professionals, technologists, and more importantly the hobbyist and the expert amateur. And who knows where such collaborations can lead.