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Getting to do ‘artsy stuff whilst also learning science’


UH West O‘ahu students of the new Creative Media 108 class last semester use Swift to program a robot to paint "ACM" (Academy for Creative Media). Image courtesy of Brad Ashburn

The University of Hawai‘i–West O‘ahu’s newest Creative Media course is a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) class, making UH West O‘ahu among the first in the UH system to offer a science course for the Arts.

Last semester, in fall 2023, UH West O‘ahu associate professor of Chemistry Brad Ashburn began teaching Creative Media 108 (CM 108): Creative Process in the Physical Sciences, a unique collaboration between the Creative Media and the Mathematics, Natural, and Health Sciences (MNHS) departments.

CM student Ashley Macho said, “Usually when I think of science, I think of numbers and lab reports and rigid experiments that the professor already knows the answer to. But CM 108 uses design and science together.”

Macho continued, “I get to do artsy stuff whilst also learning science. And since it’s design, everything the groups in my class make will be different. There is no correct answer.”

In the course, students explore problems of the physical sciences, create and test hypotheses, interpret results, and iterate designs. Mechanical and electronic devices are designed and built using physical science and computational reasoning and calculation. The creative process of science is emphasized and practiced throughout the course.

“CM 108 sparks creativity and curiosity about the natural world and teaches our students to view science through an artistic lens,” said Sharla Hanoaka, director of UH West O‘ahu’s Academy for Creative Media. “Problem-solving processes differ across disciplines. This course exposes them to new ways of breaking down challenges and finding solutions in a creative way.”

CM 108 students use Swift, a powerful, modern, and safe programming language used by software developers to build applications for Apple iPhone, iPad, Macs, and more, Ashburn said. It is also approachable and fun for beginners to learn to code.

Of note are the classroom’s new SwiftIO Playground circuit boards, which were purchased in August 2023 from a company called MadMachine and which arrived in September. Ashburn said while all of the common microcontrollers — Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Microbit — use other programming languages, the SwiftIO Playground product from MadMachine is the first and only one to use Swift.

“The reason I chose to work with this company and to get the boards created for us many months before their release to the public is because I want CM 108 to scaffold well with our App Development courses,” Ashburn said.

Showing freshmen who may not have ever considered a career as a software developer that they are capable of harnessing this technology may open new possibilities for them, he said.

“Our students are the first ones ever to use this product in the classroom since it had not even been released to the public,” Ashburn noted.

Andy Liu, CEO of MadMachine Limited, Hong Kong, said Ashburn received the first batch of products they manufactured in July.

“ ‘Swift is a general-purpose programming language that’s approachable for newcomers and powerful for experts’ — This slogan is currently well-known only among developers in the Apple ecosystem,” Liu said.

Liu continued, “It requires iconoclasts like Dr. Ashburn to expand the boundaries of its potential capability. Fortunately, we have had the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Ashburn, allowing us to provide something unique and powerful for his class.”

Hanaoka added, “This shows our curriculum really is at the cutting edge at such an early level.”

Hanaoka also recognized and thanked the Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation “for funding support of collaborative projects like these that intersect art, design, and technology,” she said. “Their appreciation of the intersection is echoed in their mission that supports innovative people working in field-based science, art and craft, teaching, and protection of the natural world.”

A teacher and two students look at laptops on a table.
UH West Oʻahu students of the new Creative Media 108 class earlier this month learn about SwiftIO Playground circuit boards from Brad Ashburn (right).

Ashburn’s CM 108 students are using Swift in various ways, including to build interactive 3D worlds with characters that solve challenges they designed, to program robots to create artwork of their design, and to control electronic sensors and output devices.

“Now they have the computational thinking foundation to continue exploring the field of technology and design at a higher level,” Ashburn said. “We are launching an upper division course in the fall that dives into Generative Art and Science that will challenge students to build interactive software experiences inspired by nature. I cannot wait to see the incredible things our students create when engineering and art collide.”

Three of Ashburn’s students last semester — Zander Demarco, Chevez Grilho, and Ashley Macho —  presented their 3D worlds project they coded at the Fall 2023 Student Research and Creative Works Symposium. During the symposium, the students shared how much they enjoy what they’re learning in CM 108.

“Something about coding is really fun,” Demarco said. “Making your own game and then the feeling of completing it is really rewarding.”

Macho, who was named a Fall 2023 Student Research and Creative Works Symposium award recipient, said she likes CM 108 because “it attacks science at another angle.”

She recommends CM 108 to other students because the class will give them a chance to get messy and have fun with science, but still learn valuable skills.

“It is amazing to me that 18 out of 20 (CM 108) students had never done any programming at all and now look at them!” Ashburn said of his students last semester. “The goal of this CM (and) MNHS collaboration is to broaden participation in computing at UH West O‘ahu with a hands-on, project-based approach to learning science that allows for students to flex their creativity.”

Image courtesy of UH West Oʻahu’s Academy for Creative Media.