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Using visual art to draw students into computer programming

At Santa Barbara High School, students have the option to get a fine art credit from a computer programming class. At a charter high school in San Diego, students use a programming language designed for visual art to construct an interactive mixed media project displayed at their school. 

These are just two examples of ways in which educators are using the visual arts as a gateway to teach computer science skills. 

"Art is a really fun context to explore computer science, so let’s make a computer make art," said Zoe Wood, computer science professor at California Polytechnic in San Luis Obispo, who created the curriculum for the "computational art" class at Santa Barbara High School.  

Students learn about color, light and perspective and create images. But instead of learning those concepts using paint or pencils and paper as students traditionally do, for these exercises students use the computer programming language JavaScript.

As programming experience become a more valuable job skill, educators are coming up with innovative ways to gets students interested at a young age. Higher education institutions like the University of California - Los Angeles, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Georgia Institute of Technology have started programs that combine the arts and coding, but it's more rare for teachers at the elementary and secondary school level to bring the concepts into their classes. 

During Computer Science Education Week this week, the non-profit aims to get tens of millions of people to participate in an exercise called the Hour of Code to learn the basics of computer programming.

Computer science fields are dominated by men, but at Santa Barbara High School, Wood says putting programming in the art context makes it more attractive to a wide variety of students.

Paul Muhl, director of the school's Computer Science Academy, says the classes are significantly more ethnically diverse than the regular computer science class and that more girls enroll.

Computational art classes are 40 percent girls, whereas female students comprise just a quarter of students in regular computer science courses and closer to just 10 percent in advanced classes. And roughly 70 percent of the computational art classes are students of color, a larger percentage than in the school as a whole and much larger than other computer science classes. 

"It’s one of my favorite classes because I’m always amazed about the variety of creativity that comes out of all of the students,"  said Muhl.

Throughout the year, students move from creating single frame images to more complex animation. One of the final projects is a fireworks simulation. Students use a tool called Processing, a software and language for visual arts coding developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Students also use Processing at High Tech High in San Diego. Artist and teacher Margaret Noble teaches coding through a contemporary art lens. For a final project, students construct a paper city that's brought to life by interactive computer art. She says over the course of the class, her students' brains are bent in a lot of different ways. 

"For some, it’s the only thing that keeps them going because they’re not naturally interested in the code," Noble said. "For others, they would like to focus specifically on the problems of code and it’s like this added challenge."