Walt Gurley is teaching code at a science museum

Our interactive Python trinkets were designed to be used in the classroom but users are finding many other creative ways to use them!  In this interview, Walt Gurley of the Visual World Investigate Lab (VisLab) at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences shares his way of teaching programming and creative thinking in the context of a hands-on lab.

This is part of a periodic series of interviews we’re doing of educational innovators.  An archive of previous interviews can be found here.

Walt Gurley of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences

Elliott: When did you start teaching programming? What got you into it?

Walt: I started teaching program approximately a year and a half ago, shortly after coming to work at the Visual World Investigate Lab (VisLab) at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. The VisLab focuses on data visualization and the technologies that help us understand the sometimes complex world around us. A key component of these technologies is computer programming. Given the ubiquity and power of programming in modern scientific studies and society in general, I decided to develop classes for school groups and the general public that introduce basic computer programming concepts.

I am kind of a late bloomer when it comes to programming. Apart from going through the DOS commands to install some computer games or copying and pasting some HTML to make websites as a kid I was pretty much just a computer user.

My real interest in programming was born out of necessity in graduate school. I had to find an effective way to explore a large amount of complex data for my thesis, and thankfully an awesome professor introduced me to the Matlab. Matlab was my gateway language that lead to exploration of other languages like Python, Visual Basic, and Javascript to enhance what I could do on my computer.

That’s where I am now. I want to be able to create cool things with my computer and teach others how to do the same.

Elliott: How does teaching programming fit with the rest of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ education?

Walt: A key concept incorporated into the museum’s educational program is to provide science for a changing world. There are multiple facets of the educational program, but the VisLab is one of three Investigate Labs in the museum, hands-on interactive spaces where the public can engage in scientific methods and use tools employed by scientists. In the VisLab, we focus on data visualization, where we demonstrate multiple ways scientists use computer-based visualization techniques to understand data from various realms of science, and making with electronics, robotics, and 3D printing. Programming is the the unifying theme: the lab is a great example of the application of programming to varied subjects.

In addition to the lab’s public space, we offer classes related to our subject area. When we were developing classes, it was just natural to create a class focusing on programming with the increased national focus on STEM education and an ever growing prevalence of technology in the modern world. While different than the typical class in a natural science museum,teaching programming is a more than topical subject for preparing future scientists.

Teaching programming is a more than topical subject for preparing future scientists.

Elliott: It seems like science museums find new ways to bring their education mission to visitors. Are there others doing what you do in other museums or locations?

Walt: There is a community of STEM educators in the museum world are developing technology and engineering programs like ours. We see an increase in the number making and tinkering spaces at museums and science centers around the country as interests in STEM education and the hacker community have grown.

Elliott: What sorts of challenges do you see when you teach in the museum setting?

Walt: The biggest challenges I’ve found is getting public school groups in the lab for our more “progressive” technology-based classes. We consistently get public school groups in for our weather class, which is not focused on technology but uses technology to create an interactive learning experience. Though, we primarily get home schools or private schools in the lab for our four classes focused on technology. It’s great that the home school and private school groups have the flexibility in their curriculum to come in and taking our technology centered classes, but we are missing a big chunk of students.

To try to expand our audience we spin our technology centered classes as a way to solve a scientific problem. If we can slip in these technological skills into common subject topics we might be able to create more marketable classes and also signify the importance of tools like GIS or programming by providing real world applications.

If we can slip tech skills into common subjects, we might be able to create more marketable classes.

Elliott: What tools and techniques do you use to help you and your students? Any good stories to share about things that seemed to trigger lightbulb moments?

Walt: I guide my students to use core concepts to solve problems and create tangible products. Most of my programming classes center on creating interactive graphical programs, such as 2D games, where participants visually see their program grow in complexity as they add code. This method provides reward in the form of a graphical representation of core programming concepts, and in the end, participants have an application they created.

I have started incorporating other technologies into the classes to expand what participants can create. In some classes I have used the MaKey MaKey electronics board to create musical instruments with code, wires, and playdoh. We also have a robotics class that incorporates Arduino based programming. I am really excited about our newest class implementing the Raspberry Pi where participants use code to create animated pixel art on an LED matrix. Incorporating electronics is a great way to add another element of fun and creativity to programming.

Tinkering is another fundamental learning technique, and one I find really fun. In each class I have a set program that we build together, but after we finish, I encourage everyone to create something that is their own. This is usually when graphical objects on the screen start changing to pictures of internet memes and blinking LEDs make the lab look like an EDM party. The free-range coding creates a fun, laid-back environment where you start to see people collaborating and sharing with each other and really pushing the limits of what they know. The chaos and creativity without guidance in these moments can be very empowering for someone learning to code.

The chaos and creativity without guidance in these moments can be very empowering for someone learning to code.

Elliott: Are there others you look up to in terms of innovative teaching or any resources you’d like to share?

Walt: I am really interested in the use of the Raspberry Pi as a tool for teaching computer science, programming, and electronics. Its numerous applications and modest price make it easy to incorporate into large classrooms or projects. I would suggest checking out the official Raspberry Pi site to get an idea of what it is and what it can do and checking out Adafruit for great tutorials, lessons, and materials.

Elliott: Are there others you look up to in terms of innovative teaching or any resources you’d like to share? How can readers get in touch with you if they have questions for you?

Walt: For any questions or comments you can contact me at walt.gurley@naturalsciences.org. If you want to see what goes on in the VisLab check out our webpage or visit in person for the full effect. The VisLab offers class on Thursday night for the general public on robotics, programming, and the Raspberry Pi, along with more programs and events at the museum.