computational thinking, carnegie mellon
Sponsored by
microsoft research
  PROBEs and Symposiums  

Symposium on Computational Thinking for Arts and Education

Organized by Golan Levin

A Multi-day Conference and Workshop Event focusing on
 Programming Environments for Artists, Children, Makers, and the Rest of Us


We propose a public event featuring:

  • Introductory workshops (for adults and children) in a dozen different arts-programming environments;
  • A conference in which the creators of these environments can meet, present and discuss their initiatives (some of which are commercial, others open-source);
  • An exhibition of interactive installations created with these environments;
  • An evening programme of audiovisual performances created with these environments.


Computational thinking has had a profound impact on the way we communicate. More than ever, our mental models of our personal information universes have come to mirror the online databases in which they are stored, and we are increasingly called upon to think procedurally when we wish to access, transform, and share our most intimate thoughts. Indeed, over the past decade, our culture itself has integrated algorithmic ideas and operations into its basic fabric. Successful communication today demands an intuitive grasp of how our sprawling network of systems and processes can be harnessed to meaningful, provocative and poetic forms of expression.
Yet an obstacle remains: just as true literacy in English means being able to write as well as read, true literacy in software demands not only knowing how to use pre-existing software packages, but how to create new software for oneself and others. Today, most everyday people are still woefully limited in their ability to create software for themselves. They would like to make their own software tools, but think that programming is “too hard.” The problem, it turns out, may not be the subject matter of programming itself so much as the way in which it is traditionally presented.
Recently, a number of movements dedicated to democratizing the education of computational thinking have coalesced. Emerging primarily from the arts sector, a set of new programming environments (and accompanying pedagogic techniques) have been developed by artists, for artists, to help regular folks and other non-computer-scientists learn to program. Using visual and musical arts as the "hook", thousands of people have not only learned to code using these new environments, but found new reasons to code in the first place. These environments – some of which are commercial products, while others are open-source initiatives – have made enormous inroads towards expanding the computational abilities and interests of hundreds of thousands of creative people worldwide.


We propose a conference which gathers together, for the first time, the innovative educator/engineers who have pioneered these new educational environments for teaching computational thinking.

The conference would include activities such as:

  • Charrette-style quick lecture presentations about the different environments, and their capabilities;
  • Discussion panels amongst the creators of the different environments;
  • Workshops for adults to learn introductory and advanced programming techniques
  • Workshops for children to gain exposure to these programming environments
  • Workshops specifically for K-12 educators about pedagogic options;
  • An exhibition of invited installation projects created with the tools;
  • An evening-schedule of performances using the environments;
  • A store for purchasing books and other 3rd-party materials for all of the environments.

A partial and tentative list of these tools include:

  • Processing,
    an open source programming language and environment for people who want to program images, animation, and interactions. Processing is essentially a cross-platform wrapper on Java with an extensive graphics API and extremely easy-to-learn IDE.
  • Alice,
    CMU's own tool that uses a drag-and-drop interface to teach programming in a 3D environment.
  • VVVV,
    a programming toolkit for real time video synthesis. It is designed to facilitate the handling of large media environments with physical interfaces, real-time motion graphics, audio and video;
  • openFrameworks,
    a C++ environment for creative audiovisual coding;
  • Scratch,
    a free programming environment for kids, developed at MIT;
  • HacketyHack,
    another free programming environment for kids;
  • Max/MSP/Jitter.
    Commercial software used worldwide for computer-music education and professional practice. Primarily sound-based but with the addition of Jitter, can process video as well. A functionally-oriented, hookup-style visual programming language;
  • PureData (PD),
    A real-time graphical programming environment for audio, video, and graphical processing. An open-source alternative to Max/MSP/Jitter;
  • Supercollider,
    A real time audio synthesis programming language;
  • ChucK,
    a Strongly-timed, Concurrent, and On-the-fly Audio Programming Language, for low-latency real-time programming of interactive sound;
  • Silverlight,
    A programming environment developed by Microsoft for rich media on the web.


The above list is not comprehensive or fixed, but many of the most influential new programming tools are listed there. Each of these tools has been adopted by thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, of people worldwide.

An OpenFrameworks workshop in Spain

The concept of workshop events dedicated to educating the public in art-oriented programming tools is in the air. Examples of recent similar events include the “Sketching in Hardware” workshop held at RISD in July 2008 (, which focused on programming environments for physical prototyping and embedded computation; and the “7Workshops7” event held in Malmo, Sweden during August 2008 ( ), which focused on Processing programming and physical prototyping. High-quality events like these have brought together practitioners and educators using at most two or three of the different environments listed above. But a conference like the one we propose (which brings together educators and developers working in many different visual and musical programming-education tools) has never yet transpired.

The time is right for greater investment at the broad intersection of computational thinking and culture-generation. Our proposed conference/workshop-series could conceivably draw participants and attendees from around the world.

Regarding the timing of the event, it may be possible to plan it to coincide with the opening of the Gates Center, or the NIME Conference (New Instruments for Musical Expression) which Carnegie Mellon will host in June 2009.

symposium on programming environments for artists, young people, and the rest of us. It features hands-on workshops and a conference showcase for ten different creative toolkits -- programming languages made by artists, for artists. 
March 7-9, 2009, Carnegie Mellon University campus.
More information