MAS.714J | Fall 2009 | Graduate

Technologies for Creative Learning


Reading responses for Week #9: Diversity and Pluralism

Reflection and Questions

Posted by SK and EL

Sherry Turkle and Seymour Papert’s article, Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete, addresses not exclusion of different groups from technical and computing cultures, but why certain groups are reluctant to join in the first place. Through the experience of female students, Turkle and Papert argue that computing cultures exhibit a “discrimination against epistemological orientations” - that is, different ways of problem solving (especially “soft” as opposed to “hard” approaches) are not valued within this culture. Many women approaching these cultures experience internal conflict when they find aspects of their femininity at odds with the cultural norms.

Although they argue that computing culture exhibits both social and epistemological discrimination, Papert and Turkle believe that computing holds promise for unifying concrete and abstract reasoning by giving substance to ideas via the screen.

Meanwhile, Leah Buechley’s LilyPad Arduino paper provides us with a nice example of a toolkit which strives to broaden the appeal of engineering and reform the associated culture to be more inclusive. The chosen method of analysis is a study of purchasing data which illuminates the demographics of who is using the Lily Pad and in what ways.

We found it interesting that our individual interpretations of these papers aligned neatly with the gender-related tendencies they described. SK (male) was primarily interested in analyzing the arguments abstractly and from a distance, while EL (female) read the papers through the lens of her concrete personal experiences as a woman in technology. SK approach might be thought of “hard,” while EL might be thought of as “soft.” Consequently, we feel it’s important to ask questions that accommodate this pluralism.

(Please answer both!)

A soft question:

In the section entitled “Beyond Bricolage: Closeness to the Object”, Papert and Turkle describe a study done by Lise Motherwell at the Hennigan School:

“She found she could capture children’s stances towards the anthropomorphization of the computer by distinguishing between two styles: relational and environmental. Relational children treat the computer as much like a person as they can get away with, while environmental children treat it like a thing. Three out of four girls in her study were relational; three out of the four boys environmental.”

We’re interested in the gender correlation described here, but we’re also interested in how these stylistic categorizations are not necessarily gender-specific.

Describe an instance in which you approached computers in a(n)…

relational style, if you identify as male.

environmental style, if you identify as female.

Which style do you tend to align with the most?

A hard question:

Turkle and Papert argue that female reluctance to join computing cultures is rooted in two interrelated issues:

  1. Discrimination against epistemological orientations requires some women to adopt a suboptimal problem solving style in order to assimilate.
  2. The social conventions of these cultures force women to downplay their relational tendencies and alienates their identity as women. They don’t want to become the “computer science type.”

Using this framework, discuss how the LilyPad Arduino does or does not address each of these issues. Does it place value on different epistemological orientations? Does it change the social aspects of the computing culture to appeal to new/different demographics?

Student Reading Responses

Posted by SL

Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful post.

Response I:

I’ve mostly tended toward the relational style in my computational world. Like KG, I LOVE my Mac. I decorate it, bathe it, coo at it, coddle it, create with it, destroy with it, cuss at it… it is my computational companion. This device is a powerful, fun, engaging creature that travels with me almost everywhere. The object-based approach to organization and navigation is such a welcome relief from the structured, clearly hierarchical nature of earlier PCs that once I learned how to use a Mac, I never looked back. For my particular kind of intelligence and learning style, this is a perfect fit.

When I was first confronted with programming in the HowToMakeAlmostAnything class, it was an entirely different world. This was a painfully foreign environment, with not much support to clarify the language of Python, the structure of programs, or the opaque object that these bits of code were meant to control, the AVR microcontroller. I found that with great effort and struggle, it did begin to make sense, this cool, distant language and structure (the little black box remains fairly opaque), and I began to enjoy the logical rules and constructs of the process. It became addictive, in fact I could spend hours and hours engrossed in writing little bits of simple code, trying this or that change to make things happen (or not happen). I began to enjoy the detached, predictable logic (even though I still had a tendency to think about programs as mischievous little tricksters that I had to appease somehow with the precise bit of information that would satisfy their whims.) While on one level I was frustrated, because I didn’t understand the black box microcontroller, on another level it was very empowering when I did finally figure out solutions. The same goes for html coding. Building web pages was fun and exciting, one could loose oneself in the endless experiments and iterations that can be tested rapidly, in real time.

That being said, my comfort level is still tenuous and filled with frustration, and I’m not convinced that the comfort that does exist is because I like the environmental style. I suspect that comfort with the process emerged because in order to survive the experience I had to adapt to the “hard” approach. I was just lucky enough to discover in that approach a delight in part of the process. I also deviated from the hard approach, by choosing soft topics to program. As example I made a beating heart for my final HTMAA project, when someone came within 2 feet of me, my heart would start thumping to demonstrate “interest.” My html webpages were very personal. In general I made up for the hard style processes by embedding relational computation goals within the environmental implementation process. That’s where Turkle’s and Papert’s hope that computers will accommodate different learning styles strikes a chord for me, the notion that computers create an environment that can bring the concrete and abstract together successfully. I agree with them that the possibilities for connecting the abstract to the concrete in a computer environment do exist, and believe that they can accommodate a broader, more diverse community-reaching way beyond the male/female division. In keeping with Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, my hope is that the computation environment can be designed to accommodate all 7 (or 9) intelligences… mine included.

Response II:

While significant, maleness or femaleness, soft or hard styles, exemplify only one facet of a multiplicity of differences in learning styles. Stepping back and looking at the problem from a more global perspective, I find that different national cultural habits and styles also surface as obstacles to joining computing cultures. Computing cultures are designed with “hard” and aggressive approaches to problem-solving in mind. For some cultures, aggression isn’t acceptable, questions are not appreciated, and making mistakes (iterations) is very bad form. So added to the hard/soft problem-solving style issues is that of cultural style. If I live in sub-Saharan Africa, as a learner and participant I have significant cultural challenges to overcome to be able to enter the computing culture. I think LilyPad Arduino begins to address some of these issues, by opening up the creative space to a broader community than might use DIY electronics, by making the programming process somewhat less opaque and somewhat more intuitive, and by engaging users to become developers as they work with the program, thus creating a better experience for themselves and for future users. This is a big step forward for more inclusive computing culture.

Arduino is still a fairly complex programming and development environment. The open source nature of the project is a tremendous advantage, as, if you have the expertise and patience, you can significantly impact the development and improvement of the platform, as well as participate in a vibrant community of practice. But the hardware platform at core, still seems to be designed based on methodology and thinking that is decidedly" hard" or “environmental” and requires a level of expertise or knowledge for entry. While one can fairly quickly implement a project in Arduino, one doesn’t necessarily understand it, nor can one necessarily apply it in different circumstances, or necessarily scale it. I find that DIY circuit board making and programming processes have an extremely high floor for newbies. Arduino is moderately easier, still presenting significant challenges to new users. It would be wonderful to find the sweet spot for attracting new users and building new communities as Leah is doing with LilyPad, but making that entry even easier and more culturally open.

Posted by VC

The Soft Question:

I fall somewhere in between the two styles, though I tend to align more with the relational style rather than the environmental style. I have a habit of naming my computers (my old, white iBook was named Priscilla-RIP, and now I have a yellow Dell laptop named Lester). I definitely had more of a relationship with Priscilla-I’d refer to her as “my pet”, while Lester is definitely more of a computer to me.

The majority of the work I do on my computer, besides emailing and reading things, is audio editing, but I haven’t had much formal training-as a producer at Brown Student Radio and a public radio intern, no one really had the time to sit down with me and explain how to use programs like ProTools beyond the basic 1st-time tutorial. When things went wrong, I’d play around until I got things right, tweaking things as I went along much like the little girls who painted over her characters when trying to make them invisible in Logo.

I recently was hired to do multimedia stuff for an economist at Harvard. He hired me for my radio experience, but also wanted me to help maintain and update his Web site, which I’d never done before. The first time he asked me to make changes, I stayed up all night learning html from the internet, building the (very, very basic) page from scratch. Now I have a very environmental approach to updating his Web site-I don’t think about creating things when I’m doing it, I think about typing things into the computer step-by-step and letting the machine do the work.

The hard question:

This is a hard one!

To address the first issue, LilyPad Arduino does offer an opportunity for people who don’t belong to the typical computing culture to participate. Once you figure out the mini-computer, the rest of the process seems approachable-at this age, everyone knows how to paint (or sew, in the case of the article), right? It’s nice that you can play around with the kit and make small goals of it that seem valuable (i.e. you can make something aesthetically pleasant) with a small amount of work. This is in contrast to the Ruby on Rails Workshop I attended earlier this semester, where we spent a long time learning the programming in steps, only to create some sort of page that allows you to add things to a list. Once we were done, I was kind of annoyed that I had put all that effort into something I thought was lame. LilyPad, on the other hand, gave me a better sense of control over the project because I could feel like I’ve achieved something, even though the level of complexity was not very high.

The second issue is a little harder for me to wrap my head around in response to LilyPad Arduino. I have a hard time considering playing around with LilyPad Arduino “computing”, though I might just have a very narrow idea of computing. To me, a very non-tech person, computing means you create something that shows up on a monitor. If LilyPad Arduino is targeted at women, I am somewhat concerned with the idea that its growing popularity will make computing “for women” synonymous with sewing or painting, which really just perpetuates gender differences rather than eliminate them. It’s basically bringing “women’s work” to the electronic realm. I’m glad that LilyPad Arduino is helping people understand computing in an accessible way, but I worry that it creates a new computer culture “for women” rather than changing computing culture as a whole.

Posted by FG

VC’s post made me think of two things, two questions that relate to these two distinct learning styles and approaches to the computer sciences.

First, when she writes that she ‘falls somewhere in between the two cycles,’ I started to wonder how conscious or subconscious our identification with one style or the other is. Most people who have posted so far seem to know what their style is. Even when it’s a mix of the two, they acknowledge it. - Here though I must say that the idea of ‘falling’ into a category, as Vicky says is interesting because it seems to me to suggest a lack of personal control, contrary to the trend I just noted. But so, are we making conscious decisions in our approaches to learning programming and using computers generally?.. Or on the contrary, are we perhaps subconsciously influenced by the dominant culture and model of interacting with computers - the ‘male’, traditional model?

Another question that came up to my mind, this time when I read Vicky’s description of how she basically taught herself web design when under the pressure of producing results in her new job situation, is where does the autodidact fits in in this two-dimensional system of learning and understanding computers? There are plenty of people who, in plenty of various spheres of knowledge and skills, prefer to learn by themselves. Others do it by circumstances. Or, now in today’s age of user-generated creative production and self-sufficient/self-organizing communities of learners and creators, perhaps these learners can all be seen as intrinsically ‘autodidact’ - in the sense that they do not rely on a body of established knowledge and practices to engage with computer science or the technological activity at hand.

The distinctions between- and the assumptions behind the two styles as explained by Turkle and Papert are clear to me now, but they fail to take these independent learning tendencies into account in my opinion.

Posted by DL

I too wonder about the same question FG brought up: “are we perhaps subconsciously influenced by the dominant culture and model of interacting with computers - the ‘male’, traditional model?” It seems that perhaps our learning styles are dictated more by cultural norms than what’s intrinsic in us (as females or males)…especially now, when society is becoming increasingly less gender-discriminating in terms of holding stereotypical views of what are acceptable behaviors and beliefs for men and women. I can’t but feel that the Sherry Turkle and Seymour Papert article is a bit outdated in its arguments.

Posted by JL

VC brings up an interesting point in whether the LilyPad Arduino is just creating a “new computer culture for women.” Why aren’t more women interested in engineering and electronics? Is it that the practice is founded and developed in a hard style and therefore more accessible to men? Or is it just that females are more interested in other fields?

Whatever it is, I do see the LilyPad Arduino as something that can help introduce electronics to females and reel them in.

Posted by MN

The soft question:

As mentioned by Papert and Turkle in the “Beyond Bricolage: Closeness to the Object” section, I tend to align more closely with relational learning. During the beginning phase of my interaction with the computer, I wanted to understand the theories behind how the computer works, instead of accepting it as it is and focusing on what it could do. Thus I watched some online lectures on basics of computer science, in order to understand to computer as if to understand hidden feelings and thoughts behind a person’s actions. However, as I got more used to the machine I just took it as it was, especially in learning C++.

The hard question:

Discrimination against epistemological orientations requires some women to adopt a suboptimal problem solving style in order to assimilate.

  • LilyPad Arduino does address the issue epistemological orientations to a certain extent by bringing the artistic, aesthetic, and relational tendencies of women by providing them the context in which they could explore the creative potential of computers.

The social conventions of these cultures force women to downplay their relational tendencies and alienate their identity as women. They don’t want to become the “computer science type.”

  • LilyPad does place value on different epistemological orientations, but I do not think that it changes the social aspects of the computing culture to the extent that women who are non-computer science type would be converted into the existing community.

Posted by VC

Thanks so much for sharing your 80’s Computer programming experience. It illustrates how much the culture has changed in the past 20 years. All of my experiences with IT have been positive, even when the problem doesn’t actually get fixed. When I was trying to put together this Web site, for example, the IT guy would tell me which codes to type into the black box, and then explain what the code meant while we waited for the computer to process the command. The contrast between my experience and yours reflects a push to make computers less scary and more personable. It’s a welcome cultural shift, and more inclusive of different learning styles for sure!

Posted by SL

I kind of agree with you that the Turkle/Papert assertion that women are forced into a sub-optimal problem solving style is not quite right, that the issue may really be about different intelligences and learning styles. I do believe that the environmental style continues to be forced on new learners to this day in many computing environments, whether the learner is male or female, without regard to learning style or different problem-solving approaches and this does strongly encourage learners to take the path of least resistance-that is, learn it the “hard”, top down, black box way. And that’s too bad, because it discourages a lot of us geek wannabes from going deeply into computational fields, or pursuing interests that involve computation. I like the fact that the LilyPad is bringing new kinds of users into the community, even if, as Victoria notes above, the platform reinforces some of the stereotypes we liberated types have worked to so hard to make disappear. So is that a good thing or a bad thing? That the computing culture embraces female stereotypes, or hides them? In some ways embracing ideas of femaleness does allow for an entirely different approach, a rejection of the hard style. But of course the price is that the stereotypes live on.

BTW thanks for the great stories from earlier days of computer wrestling… painful in retrospect, but very funny in hindsight.

Posted by DL

Building off of this original posting, “I kind of agree with you that the Turkle/Papert assertion that women are forced into a sub-optimal problem solving style is not quite right, that the issue may really be about different intelligences and learning styles.” I might even go further and suggest that the issue may not be uncorrelated with different “levels of consciousness” (referring to Bob Keagan’s constructive-developmental psychology framework). For example, people who are at the 3rd, or socialized, order of mind see things in more of a relational way.

One other thing that I am also frustrated about is the article’s use of the word epistemological orientations. The article claims to be talking about epistemological orientations, but all the examples they give are about different learning styles, which are two very different things. Epistemology talks about “the theory of knowledge, esp. with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.” People with two different ways of approaching computers/programming can have the same personal epistemologies.

Posted by MN

I do agree to the fact that computers are ubiquitous these days and no longer belongs to a set subgroups. However, I do think that programming itself is still in a fairly “male” domain, as related to your comment about your Flash TF “seeing things as parts”. Because the language was initially created by mostly males, it tends to reward the “environmental” learner type as oppose to the “relational” type.

I find it more difficult to learn programming with my typical female curiosity about meaning of the whole and interrelatedness of the parts. When I had a couple of C++ lessons from my boyfriend, I found myself constantly asking “Why are we doing this way” and him answering “This is just what they decided to do”. Pretty dry… not much room in the system for creativity.

Although LilyPad Arduino and some iPhone apps don’t necessarily change the computing environments, they do provide opportunities for the more artsy types to apply their imagination and relational tendencies to programming. The facts that LilyPad programming could lead to aesthetically pleasing products and iPhone apps tend to either engage communities or create a social vibe invite the not-traditionally-geeky types into the world of immense creativity and beauty.

Posted by JC

Describe an instance in which you approached computers in a(n)…

… relational style, if you identify as male.

… environmental style, if you identify as female.

When I’m dealing with something new that I am not familiar with, I feel the need to fully understand the object and get familiar with it on my own. I like to explore at my own pace and get as detailed as possible. It is like getting to know another person to me. By getting close to the object, I feel comfortable with what it can and can’t do. For instance, I recently had to learn how to use a robot platform for helping out a high school class. I took it home to spend time playing with it so that I could explain what it does and how. I assumed I would have to help students who wanted to know how something worked and not just that it worked.

Which style do you tend to align with the most?

I think I associate when each style 50% of the time; I begin relational and move to environmental once I’m familiar with the object’s capabilities.

Using this framework, discuss how the LilyPad Arduino does or does not address each of these issues. Does it place value on different epistemological orientations? Does it change the social aspects of the computing culture to appeal to new/different demographics?

The LilyPad encourages creativity in exploration. The open source hardware serves as an electronic media to create with; there is not a static curriculum that dictates how exploration is conducted. This openness innately encourages different methods of learning and exploring. Students who use the hardware are hopefully involved in project-based environments where they are free to exploit the LilyPad media; and do this in their own ways. Thus, the social environment does not dictate how to explore.

Posted by FG

A Soft Question:

Initially, upon reading about these rigid categorizations of male/female, relational/environmental, and soft/hard in people’s approach to computers, I was tempted to reject such reductionist black-and-white thinking, being more of the opinion that these various personal styles often overlap and that people call upon a wider range of personal responses and tactics when trying to solve a problem or engage in computational/scientific thinking generally. At least, I like this idea.

Having said this, I understand the basis for Turkle and Papert’s categorizations, and I can say that it rings a bell with my own learning and operational style in the context of computer science [and in all scientific and especially mathematical thinking for that matter].

Moreover, those social scientists and academics who frame the whole debate on computer sciences are mostly male themselves [Turkle seems to be more an exception than the rule], so there are indeed plenty of signs and reasons for using the male/female paradigm when thinking about the field.

Thus, personally I can completely identify with Lisa in T/P’s study, who displays the ‘soft,’ environmental approach and sees computers ‘as just a tool’. I have to say that at least initially I had a tendency to see technology and technological devices in such a way, as tools that just enable me to do x or y or go from a to b.

Today, even though I am aware of the human/humane qualities that computers are being enhanced with - a quick tour of some of the Media Lab’s research groups such as the Personal Robots one will give plenty of examples of this - I am still far from seeing the arsenal of gadgets and devices that I am dragging around daily, including my MacBook Pro, as ‘friends’. I feel I am too aware of the commercial imperatives behind these devices for that. This applies to all the messages that seek to teach us to view these technological devices as part of our look and identity - a fashion and/or personality statement of sorts. They are just commercial messages that too often sound irresistible.

But to go back to my learning style and approach to computer [and all abstract] sciences and the comparison I made with Lisa, the best instance I can give is my current learning of Python here at MIT through an elective class, 6.00. The experience is proving quite a painstaking affair, albeit a very rich one in terms of learning, precisely because of my personal, ‘soft’ or female/environmental approach.

What irks me the most is this rigid, finite, “rule-driven system” that the paper mentions. In this programming world [as in all math and sciences], 2+2=4, I mean, what is there to discuss?! It’s a world that establishes itself beyond the reach of critical discussion and questions.

Also, more than a ’too male’ approach to computer science and programming, it’s a ’too mathematical one’ that I find the most disturbing. It seems that these fields have been completely monopolized by the ‘mathematically minded’ or those who identify themselves with a scientific mind as opposed to the more literary minded. My very first thought, after my first encounter with programming was ‘we need a language to program computers that is intrinsically based on a ’literary’ system so as to cater to the literary minds, and establish some sort of balance in a sphere that has been entirely dominated by the mathematicians and similarly abstract thinkers.

I believe that ‘my’ group of literary minds - or if to include the other qualities represented by the ‘soft/female/environmental’ group, should have a claim to this field of computers, programming and related computer sciences. So far it has been outrageously unfairly under-represented in it, to be mild, in fact it has been completely ostracized from it.

This is why Turkle and Papert’s proposition, together with all the efforts of those researchers who are exploring a more creative, more flexible, less traditional approach to computer science, with projects such as Scratch, Arduino and others, come as a breath of fresh air in the very stale, intransigent environment of traditional programming and computer science. It is a proposition I fully embrace.

A Hard Question:

First, I want to say that ‘belonging’ to such or such a group or being identified as such or such ’type’ and the whole series of people’s/society perceptions of me are the least of my concerns. In fact I never cared for these classifications, and people are welcome to laugh at me if they find me belonging to an ‘odd’ group or not belonging to anything at all.

So assimilating and integrating the particular group of traditional programmers and computer scientists has never been part of my strategy for learning the science itself. I never saw this as a condition for my learning anything really, believing, rightly or wrongly, that I am able to assimilate concepts independently and that my learning capacities do not depend on any affiliations.

So I don’t find these notions of ’types’ and belonging obstacles to my learning. Rather, the obstacles are intrinsic - it is my own personal stubbornness in sticking to my own ways [the soft ones], and not opening my mind enough to the male/traditionally scientific ways that have been the major stumbling blocks in my learning programming - rather than social phenomena such as perceptions of belonging to a particular group.

As for the LilyPad Arduino, I have to say that I still have a very limited experience and therefore technical knowledge of it, but I am aware of the laudable efforts of the High-Low Tech group, which as its name indicates, seeks to extend technological design opportunities to all spheres of society and thus democratize the field of design and computer science. It is empowerment personified. It is clear that the system affords all the creative and more open-ended possibilities that we discussed here above and that are represented as being intrinsically ‘female’ or ’environmental’ by Turkle and Papert.

One activity that working with the LilyPad reminded me of, as I completed my first assignment with it last semester, is jewelry-making. The concentration and careful handling of the board, microsensors and other minute elements found in electrical engineering that are required, combined with the beautiful results give the whole activity a ‘feminine’ quality - if to use the traditional definition of ‘feminine’.

The past and current projects being built using the LilyPad Arduino, such as the Pop-Up Book or the Living Wall are great incentives too, I find. As I said, these are beautiful, but also tangible creations that are great motivational factors for all those who, like me, felt estranged by the abstraction of programming and the impossibility to hold on to something concrete in order to master its concepts.

Posted by SL

Hi FG:

Your idea for developing a literary language for computation, while offered up in frustration, is kind of fascinating. I see mathematics less as a domineering force, rather as an abstract but elegant and powerful lens through which to explore and tool with which to create in this world. And I think your mathematics teachers should be shot for not instilling you with some love of the discipline before letting you go! But the idea of an entirely different approach to the computation environment, based entirely outside of math and science is quite an interesting challenge. How might that look? Would we use analogies to computer architecture, borrowed from our environment? Earth OS, trees and roots for architecture? Would we use the language of emotion to express the jumps and loops of programming? I know this sounds ridiculous and is a bit literal, but I think you’re on to something here. Or would we be embarking on a complete shift in the way that computation was structured? I think that even if we took the literal approach and made a new “literary” language for computation, that it would be a lot more fun to program and would invite a new and broader community to the table. Hmmm…

Posted by JP

A soft question:

I identify as male. I always consider a computer as a thing, actually I even think of it as consumption good. Generally, I have used computers for three years and replaced them with a new one. Through my history with computers, I just concluded that three years is the most cost effective cycle for renewing computers. I tried to keep my computers always clean and in good condition, not because I liked it or considered it as my friend but I just wanted my computers to work smooth and fast whenever I need them to.

One representative aspect of my environmental style in using computers is my changing display setups to the simplest for the purpose of running my computer fast. As soon as I bought a new computer, I removed all the visual effects of Windows such as transparency, shadow-effects and changed the window theme back to the classic Windows style.

However, there were rare moments when I had the relational style with computers. It was when I had a trouble with computers such as when my computer kept freezing a day before a final presentation, when I lost all my valuable data because of a hard disk problem or when my computer slowed down in the middle of an important meeting. In such cases, I talked to computer that it was not a good time to freeze, I begged to my computer to become normal and sometimes I threatened it even though I knew that my relational style actually did not solve any problem.

A hard question:

I am not convinced by the LilyPad Arduino approach to increase relational tendencies; on the contrary, I prefer Arduino Pro or Mini framework in which only essential parts are assembled so users can distinguish the roles of various parts, understand the mechanism underneath Arduino and achieve capabilities using microcontrollers and shifting to embedded systems. I think the biggest problem of using microcontrollers that beginners have is not whether users have relational or environmental style but there are not so many good tutorials for absolute beginners.

To learn microcontrollers, lots of people used technical data sheets and also recommend that method to novices. I believe this method triggered tremendous problems in learning microcontrollers for beginners because the data sheets are written in technical sentences, hard to understand and consequently blocked people from learning Arduino. I guess that the reason why Arduino is so successful is its easy and friendly tutorials. The Web site tutorial contains references and links for different levels of users. I guess that if microcontrollers have as nice tutorials as Arduino has they can bring in more people as Arduino did, regardless of the styles people may use with them.

Posted by DG

“Anne is perfectly capable of producing a program with well-delineated subprocedures, although her way of creating them has little in common with the planner. Devotees of structured programming would frown on Anne’s style. From their point of view, she should design a computational object (for example, her bird) with all the required qualities built into it. She should specify, in advance, what signals will cause it to change color, disappear, reappear, and fly. One could then forget about “how the bird works.” In engineer’s jargon, it could be treated as a black box.”

I take issue with description above, I believe that the Hard/Soft approach in computer science isn’t as clear as it’s made out to be in the article. I believe it’s actually impossible to blackbox any piece of relatively complex software, because there is exists the problem of leaky abstractions. When I work on a piece of software I work at a certain level of abstraction, moving up and down as needed. I think that a mixed hard & soft approach is required.

A soft question:

Whenever I write a piece of software, I sketch out a path through it and slowly build it up as go on. I think that my primary approach to software development is in the soft way - I say things like: “this object talks to this one.” I think that I take an intuitive approach to all my tasks, and so when working on a project I need to understand it at an intuitive level, before I can proficiently work on it. Of course, as you create more and more software you develop the blackbox approach but I normally let it evolve as the program or design is being created.

A hard question:

I think that physical computing really does help cross thinking styles because it allows you to have something tangible. In the vein of building a new clubhouse, due to the fact that actual interests differ, I think that the LilyPad makes a big difference. By building things that exist in the real world it can often change the value proposition, by giving an individual something that they can easily show to their friends they may not view it as a waste of time.

Posted by AL

Your “soft” style of working supports my idea that the difference between the hard and soft styles has more to do with different levels of creativity. As you mentioned, when you are beginning with something, you use a soft approach, and when you’ve mastered it you start to use a blackbox approach. But once you need to go further, you might work in a more tinkering, creative, soft way with your given tools. The distinction they make is really examining closely the functions of the tools and creatively using them for your purposes, rather than just using what is presented to you.

Posted by JL

Soft Question:

I feel like that there used to be a time when I was persistent in knowing something inside out; not knowing something in its fullest degree would bother me. Only by intimately investigating can i understand an object’s capabilities and limitations. But I soon realized that trying to understand the intricate details only set me behind. Why try to reinvent the computer or a programming language? Just use the API and libraries. For progress, programmers have to trust and blackbox many processes. Thus, as an engineer, I would identify myself as environmental.

Hard Question:

I definitely agree that the LilyPad Arduino introduces electronics to a field/application that is popular among females and allows them to explore something new/different in a court that they are comfortable in. Like in the testimony below:

“LilyPad and the related e-textile field made me brave enough to jump into hardware development…Before I started this project, I had absolutely no experience with electronics of any kind. I STILL can’t solder to save my life, but it doesn’t matter, because I can sew.”

However, does the LilyPad Arduino cater to a different style of problem solving and thinking (like those more feminine and soft)? I would argue no, since the basic architecture of Arduino was most likely developed by men. The board is still too black-boxed. Can people play around with the board to figure it out? Are its capabilities and limits transparent? From first sight, anyone would be afraid to tinker with it.

Posted by JC

I definitely agree with the comments on needing to have trust in other work to make progress in software development; there certainly is a dependency on API and libraries. Back in the day, we used to program our own computer vision methods. We don’t have to do this anymore with packages like OpenCV. This may be a black box, but the relational aspects of creating can still exist at a higher level.

Posted by VC

It didn’t even occur to me that you could play around with the board and tinker it. And even if I knew that when I made my project, I would have been too scared. Thanks for bringing that up!

Posted by DG

In your first question you say that you used to try and understand everything to its fullest degree and that now you can black box. Do you think that this ability to blackbox is a result of that earlier understanding - you already know in theory how it works, the specific implementation details don’t matter, because you could write the API/library yourself if needed?

Posted by RC

A soft question:

I definitely align with both approaches. Having studied Computer Science since HS I feel that I align quite a bit with the environmental style, but still find myself anthropomorphizing computers and computer programs. Often I complain about how my code is acting fickle and sometimes give my computer a break when I think I’ve been working to too hard.

As a programmer I approach computers in an environmental style in normally day to day activities. I plan out what features I would like to add to my application, decide what new classes or methods I would need to write (and think about how to do so in the most reusable way), look at libraries out there to see what code I can reuse that has previously been written by another, and start putting the pieces together. I don’t often think about what exactly is underneath the hood of the library methods that I use, but just take it as given and am generally thankful that I do not have to reimplement every little piece of code. Often times this means having to do things in a more roundabout way just to reuse code.

A hard question:

I feel that the LilyPad Arduino allows its users to use as soft or as hard an approach as they choose. When I was playing with the kit, I didn’t feel like there was a ‘right’ way to start building. My team went with a softer approach. We didn’t have a plan, but just let things happen as we played around with the materials. I believe part of the reason the kit we played with allows such freedom of approach is because of the materials (both building materials and support materials). We weren’t given a breadboard and wires, but instead given paint and paper. When I took the Circuit class here at MIT (6.002), I was quickly taught the ‘correct’ way of wiring a breadboard - which color wires to use for which connections, which holes in the breadboard should connect to ground, etc. Even the lab materials would teach us to build each component separately and then connect them together (black boxing). With the LilyPad we had the templates and the instructions that taught us how to connect things to the microcontroller, but weren’t told the ‘correct’ ways to go about building a project with the controller. The move away from traditional computational materials definitely helps the kit appeal to a broader demographic.

Posted by DG

I agree completely with your analysis of the LilyPad. I think that removing a lot of the constraints normally found in technology (the exactness needed for it to work) allowed us to experiment and evolve our approach. I for one know that I’d approach my next project slightly different (trace the holes/leads onto the paper before starting), but I think it was highly accessible to planners, evolvers/improvisers or anyone in between.

Posted by AL

For the soft question: I think I generally take the “environmental” route of treating the computer as a thing-i.e. I know the functions the computer has to offer and use them accordingly. However, when I need to actually do something new with my computer, or a program, my problem-solving techniques are invariably more “relational.”

For instance, I had to learn how to use Photoshop in one weekend to produce a design that would be included in an exhibition the next week. Kind of like the example VC provides of learning the web-programming software for her teacher, I was sort of thrown into the metaphoric deep end and had to pull from whatever resources I had to swim! I used Photoshop in a weird, clunky, super un-black box way. My technique was based on real drawing and collage. When I had a proper lesson in Photoshop later, I realized how shortcuts would have helped me in some situations, but in others the collaging styles helped me to create more nuanced products.

In another example, while we were creating the assignment for today’s class, JP, KA and I were trying to figure out how to encompass so many different painted circuits on the magnetic paper without having them touch each other, and I suggested creating a little bridge over a circuit so they wouldn’t interfere with each other’s conductivity but would save space. I think I was able to come to this idea because I have never used circuits before.

Hard question: I will take a sort of roundabout way of answering this question. I am kind of more interested in the fact that many males are using the LilyPad Arduino in high numbers (more women use the LilyPad than just the Arduino, but still more men use it). There is only 1 small paragraph in the Turkle/Papert article that talks about the social conditioning of these “female” vs. “male” traits they continuously reference. It is interesting that innovative “soft” design for hardware attracts males more than less innovative but traditionally more highly valued abstract hardware designs-such as their example of the Macintosh over the IBM pc. I am interested both in how the LilyPad serves as an appropriate tool for female users as well as providing an entry point into “soft” programming styles for its male users. (Of course this distinction between male and female styles of programming is very general).

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Problem Sets with Solutions
Projects with Examples
Activity Assignments with Examples