Computation & Conceptually-Oriented STEAM Teaching

Diedrick Brackens. “Untitled,” 2015

As I was reading the recent Interview article on Sanford Biggers with Diedrick Brackens, I kept thinking: I see the algorithms in these tapestries. For years I’ve written about the geometry in the quilts Sanford uses, how the quilt patterns demonstrate rotation, reflection, translation and dilation. I’ve taught students how to use these properties to remix existing patterns.

Lithonia Middle School student explores remixing quilt patterns

Ron Eglash and his team of graduate students (at RPI) created a suite of online tools to help students remix patterns. Culturally situated design tools or CSDTs connect culture and computation. Seeing Brackens work inspired me to return to the tool that was developed using Nonstikelelo Mutiti’s block-based tile designs. These designs can be found in quilts and in African textiles such as Adire (Nigeria), Kente (Ghana) and Kuba (Congo).

Adire cloth from Nigeria
Ghanaian Kente cloth
Congolese Kuba cloth
Diedrick Brackens. “wading still (bend, bow, pull),” 2018

The CSDTs use a visual, or object-oriented computer programming language called Snap! that remixes these designs while demonstrating mathematical and computational ideas. I used the Ruka CSDT to simulate the patterns I saw in these textiles works. I improvised based on the initial result by removing part of the source image (sprite).

Using the Ruka CSDT

Last weekend, I taught a data and music workshop to 7th grade students in Long Beach, CA. We used Google Sheets and conditional formatting to create pixel art. Students applied formatting — such as colors— to their spreadsheets based on the cell value. Then, they imported their work into another online tool to create music from the data. I use this data/sound visualization process to teach beginners how to do computer (data) science.

Student pixel art example
Student pixel art example

What emerges from these examples is a metaphor or concept (modularity) that touches on multiple subjects and creates a bridge to cultural heritage. Scholars such as Judy Bales and Karen D. King look at the improvisation in these designs. King refers to it as conceptually-oriented teaching. She emphasizes the power of the metaphor:

[I]n order to gain an understanding of the metaphor… one needs to have some understanding of the source domain (proficient jazz improvisation) and the target domain (conceptually-oriented teaching).

King writes that the performer (artist / learner) uses forethought, prior knowledge and novel ideas in the “unique enactment” of the improvisational event. Conceptually-oriented teachers base their actions on the following:

  • an image of a system of ideas and ways of thinking that she intends the students to develop;
  • an image of how these ideas and ways of thinking can develop;
  • ideas about features of materials, activities and expositions and the students’ engagements with them that can orient the students’ attention in productive ways;
  • an expectation and insistence that students be intellectually engaged in tasks and activities

This focus on students’ reasoning and leads to a responsiveness to the teachers’ interpretations of culturally relevant art and design thinking. Where King and I depart is at the role of the teacher. King refers to the teacher as the improviser but I think everyone involved in the experience can improvise: as a form of call-and-response participation or as a cypher. I address this experience in more detail in my upcoming book.




Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.

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