Last week I left my quiet office to talk with a group of local 8th graders. The class had been studying programming, and the students were presenting their final collaborative projects in a ‘hackathon’ style competition.
The night before my talk, I dreamed that the kids were seated outside at picnic tables. Their computers were mammoth contraptions that looked like old typewriters. It started to rain and we got drenched and the kids went inside. I was left scurrying around in the rain, wondering how to get the computers inside and dry again.
So, my subconscious was telling me (as if I didn’t already know) that talking to a room full of middle schoolers was going to take me outside of my comfort zone.
But the actual talk went fine. I talked about my winding path into design and web programming and about doing work that combines both creativity and technology. The kids payed attention to the extent that 8th graders are able. And there was only fog that morning, no rain.
If you have an interest in such topics (tailored for an 8th grade attention span) please read on. Or skip down to the conclusions of the day. Also, the MatternCo website has an updated design these days, so please take a look around!
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My next question was: “Who likes doing things that are technical– like researching, programming, observing and testing?” All of the boys raised their hands, albeit somewhat less enthusiastically.
I was stumped. I had mistakenly assumed that the kids of today had outgrown these traditional roles of ‘girls are creative’ and ‘boys are technical.’ But I was in new territory here.
Finally I asked: “Who likes being both creative and technical?” The kids were either confused or bored of my questions by now. One boy raised his hand.
“I like doing stuff that is both creative and technical,” I said (rather articulately). “And it turns out that having skills in both can help you with a lot of projects and careers.”
I went on to talk about how when I was their age, I liked making things. (I didn’t mention dioramas, because I’ve been told kids don’t make these anymore, but that’s the kind of project I had in mind.) I told the kids that if I’d been paying attention when I was younger, I would have seen that I was most focused and absorbed when I was being as creative as I could possibly be.
But I also liked science and being outside, so I went to college and studied environmental science, and then I got a job in environmental planning. I told them how in my first jobs I still found myself making things, like making reports and graphics and websites, and that’s what eventually led me to study multimedia in grad school.
The multimedia program I went to combined digital arts and computer science. I took classes in design and animation and programming and filmmaking and media history and game theory.
“Today in my work,” I told the students, “I mostly do graphic design and web programming. That means I get to spend part of my time on something that’s more freely creative like design, and part of my time on something that’s more structurally technical like programming.”
I told them that I love this combination because it gives my job a lot of variety, and it lets me as one person see a project all the way from concept through to creation.
It also turns out that having a science background as a designer helps me in my work with more technical clients. I’m better able to understand the work they do and help them communicate that.
A lot of my clients also combine both creative and technical skills in what they do.
This is where I got to show off some cool examples of what my clients do— like Tierra Plan’s story map museum display, and SD+B’s educational materials for green buildings, and Sterling’s work for folks involved with amazingly technical and creative ventures (like a hover technology that stabilizes buildings in earthquakes).
We wrapped up the talk with two simple pieces of advice:
1) If you love being creative, look for ways to be creative in whatever you’re doing because everything needs new ideas and solutions.
2) It’s okay if a career path is winding. Often that can lead you somewhere more interesting than you could have gotten to if you’d taken a more direct route.
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Later that day, the kids presented their work. Most of the projects were text-based video games featuring violent interactions with magical creatures. The students played their games in front of their audience of peers, presenting a series of options along the lines of: “run away” or “fight”? The inevitable cheer from the crowd was always: “Fight!” The results written on the screen were satisfyingly brutal and gory.
The winning project was presented by a group of girls who said they liked writing. Their game was about a character’s psychotic break, complete with graphics, music and (of course) violent interactions with magical creatures.
So, it turns out these kids already understood the intersection between creativity and technology– they didn’t need me to point it out.
I talked with a friend later who was judging the projects, and she reminded me that middle schoolers are dealing with big subconscious fears, fears far bigger and scarier than my discomfort with public speaking. She told me that kids that age don’t have much control over their lives yet. They want to explore what it’s like to be powerful and experience danger.
“It’s better than giving them guns,” she said.
Video games let kids confront life and death stakes while physically staying safe. What’s more, when kids use creativity and technology, they can explore their own imaginations without an adult’s perspective or profit motive getting in the way.
That sense of adventure and independence was my ultimate takeaway from the hackathon day… that and the sweet relief of a quiet office to go to after it was over.