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Hackspace Warwick: Learning by Play within a digital setting

Photo of Sarah KalvalaGadgets and information technology play an increasing role in society, reaching across all ages and sections of society. There is an enormous computing power embedded in devices that look a far cry from the typical computer with a screen, keyboard, and mouse; such user-friendly, interactive interfaces can account for the wide reach of technology. However, the smooth, industrialised presentation of some of these devices, with impenetrable, slick cases, as well as the fear of voiding warranties and contravening conditions of use, has increased the distance between casual use and the process of 'tinkering' and experimenting which characterized the early days of amateur programming. Many of the crucial developments in Computer Science have in fact resulted from the spirit of redesign and 'hacking' which were encouraged by the more open systems available a few decades back, while currently it seems odd that the high impact of computing is matched by a decrease in the interest in computing as a discipline.

In this project, we aim to provide opportunities for play and invention with regards to interactive gadgets. The aim is to encourage not just playing with gadgets as users, but also as developers and inventors. It is by interacting with existing systems and being made aware of possibilities that the doors of creativity can be opened. While many popular devices are difficult to work with, there is an international, grassroots movement to support tinkering and creating new applications and new visions of technology. Many of these activities centre around informal spaces often called hackspaces or makerspaces. The word 'hacker' often has a negative connotation, bringing up visions of illegally breaking into weakly secured resources, but in this wider context hacking consists of reusing, redesigning, and creating by using open-source designs.

At Hackspace Warwick, we have recruited students to explore platforms such as the Android App Developer, Raspberry Pi minimalist computer, and the Kinect motion sensor, and provide sessions to encourage their cohorts and other users of the Hackspace to interact with the hardware and development tools, and imagine new uses and applications and actually work towards developing these visions. These activities are not part of any specific module or formal learning activity, but are aimed at the development of an active and inquisitive attitude which engages not only with Computer Science but with the many ways in which information technology has made and continues to make such a big impact on our lives.

Dr Sara Kalvala is an Associate Professor in Computer Science and has been teaching and researching programming methodologies, and in particular how programs written in user-friendly, high-level programming languages can be proved to correspond to their specifications when they are running on the raw hardware in their low-level, optimised translations. A particular, exciting new strand of this research is applications to synthetic biology, where now the low-level hardware is actually a cell that runs genetic code!