The ideas for the binary learning systems I created arose from simple observation and the merging and mixing of simple ideas. Playing and exploring the edges of the original system led to further iteration and unexpected discoveries. The process taught me much about how we learn and interact with one another as we approach new challenges. My design approach is heavily influenced by teachers who understand the importance of play and collaboration and who allow divergent thinking in the classroom.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty states that the body is "not a chunk of space or a bundle of functions but ... an intertwining of vision and movement." We are playful, creative creatures. We thrive on curiosity, learn from failure, and bolster one another in the process. Designing physical interfaces that take full advantage of these strengths has shown me that there is invaluable teaching potential in leveraging the body and disrupting the accepted norms of the classroom.
There is growing acceptance for new interfaces—even in our stressed educational systems. What teachers need now more than ever are accessible teaching tools that leverage technology without losing sight of our inherent physical nature. Embodied learning is fundamental to our development and should take a greater role in education. Designers who embrace these ideas and draw inspiration from the familiar will discover more effective ways to flip the switch and inspire children.
The binary glove teaches concepts of binary sequences and bits in a fun and engaging way. Each finger represents a bit value in a simple binary sequence: 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16. Pressure sensors in the ends of each finger register each bit as on or off. The sum of each active bit is displayed on the glove along with a visual representation of the current sequence. 5 bits allow the wearer to create any number from 0 to 31 on one hand.
The glove has a learning mode for experimentation and play. Each number combination plays a different tone. Once the wearer is comfortable with the system they can activate a game mode and test their skills. A random number from 0 to 31 is displayed and the user is timed to see how fast they can create the correct bit sequence.
Simple interactive exercises like these teach useful concepts that might otherwise appear too abstract for some students. Once the skill is learned and the pattern recognized, further learning poses fewer obstacles for the visual learner.
The Binary Glove was fun to use and effectively trained users in simple binary computation. It also showed promise as a gestural instrument, but its fixed sized was a problem for different hand sizes. Young children were unable to have a seamless interactive experience; excess fabric got in the way of tiny fingers. In order to bring the system to a larger audience, I rebuilt the device as the Binary Pad.
The pressure sensors were replaced with simple push buttons, and a physical interface was designed that would accommodate a variety of hand sizes. The haptic experience of the larger buttons was less gratifying than the pressure sensors on the glove, but the form factor was effective; it even successfully accommodated left-handed users. The table-top interface allowed users to interact without the ceremony of donning the device, and multiple participants could use the pad simultaneously.
In December of 2010, I arranged to visit two fifth grade math classes to observe and document their interaction with the new system. Nora Sterry Elementary is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second larges public school system in the nation. 62 students participated.
Initially the students took turns alone with the device, but soon began approaching the interface in collaborative ways. Those who had finished playing lingered nearby, enthusiastically coaching new participants on easier ways to think about the system. Crowding around the device, they helped one another complete combinations, teaching and explaining as they interacted together. They quickly discovered that they could achieve much faster times in the challenge mode if they worked together. Collaborative participation arose spontaneously. A spirit of play and collective problem solving lead to greater overall engagement and comprehension of the system.
As an additional experiment, I led the students in my own full body computational exercise. Instead of adding with fingers, I assigned the five bits from the counting system to a different appendage of the body, including the head, arms and legs. Each limb was given an on-state and an off-state: lowered or raised. After personally demonstrating each of the 32 unique body poses, I invited the class to stand and join me as I lead them in sequence through each pose.
The students found the dance humorous and fun. They referred to a few of the more sudden state changes as "Michael Jacksons"—the shift from 11 to 12 and from 17 to 18—because of the unique way the head would drop as an arm and a leg jutted out to the side. Learning the sequence in a large group allowed students to comfortably observe their classmates while attempting the combinations themselves. Students reported understanding the underlying patterns that emerged as they physically acted out the sequence; they could feel the patterns in ways different from the Binary Pad. Months later, I was stopped by some of the original participants so they could demonstrate that they still remembered the dance sequence.
Following the visit to Nora Sterry, I created Binary Face Off. The Binary Dance had been effective enough that I drastically increased the size of the device and expanded its ability to accommodate more users. Two opposing body-sized interfaces were connected by an Arduino board to game software written in Processing.
I also introduced a more considered competitive game experience. The Green side could press a button to challenge the Blue side to a binary face off. If Blue accepted, Green was asked to create a combination and hold it for a full second. Once the challenged number was submitted, Blue was then timed to see how long it would take to create the 31 (Green's number). Green earned more points the longer Blue took to complete the problem. The process was then reversed and repeated over three rounds of play.
This series of gesture-based learning systems demonstrated an effective approach to teaching abstract math concepts. More importantly participants enjoyed the experience and often went further to help and teach their neighbors and friends, increasing the likelihood of knowledge retention.
By utilizing open-ended play and game components, users were free to experiment and explore the system and then challenge their knowledge. Additionally, the use of full-body interaction and gesture expanded the teaching potential of the interaction in ways that are underutilized in education.
Cal Poly Science Cafe featured this body of work at the San Luis Obispo Mini Maker Faire in 2014.
Read the full thesis text here.