Meet the Teenage Girls Changing Creative Engineering

It’s October 24th, six girls from our Creative Code Apprenticeship program arrive at Dolby Laboratories on Market Street in San Francisco. The group is one of two youth cohorts currently enrolled in the program. As they acclimate to the pristine, echoing Dolby headquarters, the girls are quiet but self possessed. This is the first time they have seen the Ribbon Screen: a digital display that spans the Eastern wall of Dolby’s Gallery, exposed to the public through the floor to ceiling glass face of the lobby. They marvel at the work on display, “Common Areas: Perspectives” by Sabrina Ratte, which appropriates the themes and forms of corporate spaces towards an angular meditation — a red horizon cutting through the expansive stone gallery architecture.

Apprentices Omotara Oloye, Connie Liu, Grace Tan, Krystyna Olszewska, YahnaiJah Gilliam, and Erin Paige Woo learn about the Digital Ribbon Screen from Kevin Byrd, the Director of Curation & Visual Experience at Dolby Laboratories.

The girls immediately notice the nuanced sound design of the installation, revealing the depth of their own knowledge as they process the amount of work that lies ahead. The six teens of the Creative Code Apprenticeship for Girls with Dolby Laboratories, led by artists Chelley Sherman and Niki Selken, are tasked with designing their own work for the Digital Ribbon Screen. Four other youth will be designing an interactive work for the intricate Listening Booth with NOW Hunters Point, led by artists Collin Canard Schupman and James Troup. The two site specific projects are different but equal in their level of difficulty. The platforms for which these apprentices will be developing work are typically reserved for some of the most well regarded digital artists and designers in the field.

The six highschoolers have gathered at Dolby for a tour of the Labs. It’s a fun, recreational outing complete with sound demos of phantom jets, thermal cameras, and Stanford undergrads wearing brain activity sensors. The tour is also an initiation into the most elite world of creative engineering, culminating in a technical discussion about the specs of the Digital Ribbon Screen and the Dolby Atmos sound system resident in the Gallery space.

At Dolby Laboratories the apprentices see first hand how new technologies are being evaluated for human responsiveness.

It’s overwhelming, but the girls remain cheery and inquisitive throughout the tour — a mood that the girls and their mentors have continued to cultivate throughout the program.

One of the apprentices, 17 year old Erin Woo of Burlingame High School, spoke with us about her experiences in the program since the tour. She says girls were inspired to visualize the themes of the project. “We began by brainstorming abstract concepts, which we then narrowed down to the ones we agreed on the most. It was interesting to see how most of us had really similar ideas with each other, which made refining our concept so much easier. We then began to moodboard and brainstorm sketches of what it could look like.”

The girls work together well and are moved by a rather sophisticated view of technology in culture. Erin’s personal viewpoint is optimistic, even though it is motivated by effecting change. “I’ve seen the power of technology and how it changes people’s lives for the better. Social media has played an especially large role in shaping our culture today. For me, I’ve always had a passion for social justice and breaking down cultural barriers, so a lot of the projects I work on have to do with addressing social inequalities or bringing people together.”

The apprentices moodboard to better conceptualize and collaborate on their project.

Erin is not alone in wanting the project to address social issues, but the girls bring different experiences and perspectives to the table. Erin believes this only strengthens the work they are doing. “It’s been so amazing to work with the five other girls in the program. I’m from the Peninsula, so it’s been so fun to meet other girls from the East Bay and the city. Each individual has so many great ideas — the diversity in taste and style helped broaden our perspective of how we should approach the project.”

Mentor Chelley Sherman is surprised by the professionalism and intellectual caliber of her students. Reflecting on her own development she says, “I am amazed at how much more advanced and mature these young women are. The fact that they have LinkedIn profiles and resumes much stronger than when I was 20 goes to show that they are highly driven…the group is also passionate about social and economic issues, which is reflected in their work.”

The “Knob Wall”, by Because We Can, speaks to the girls’ more playful side.

Students in the program are encouraged to explore how web development, data visualization, generative art, gaming, and interactive media might be used to tell their own story. The program champions S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) education to help inspire a sustained love of learning and creation. Sherman notes that engineering in this setting “is much different than creating a framework for a website or app that is pure function. It’s an environment that promotes expression and challenges [the youth] to create tools to help facilitate that.” Gray Area has long iterated curriculum using this educational philosophy through our Immersive program, one of the only adult Creative Code programs in the country.

The girls seem fluent in this pedagogical movement, understanding coding as something to be leveraged across fields and mediums, even if their schools haven’t caught up yet. “I definitely believe that schools don’t offer enough interdisciplinary courses or activities,” Erin admits, “and it’s too bad because we live in an interdisciplinary world…I believe that schools should try to encourage students to find their individual passions and apply them to a variety of fields.” She sees this as an investment in students that ought to be prioritized, adding that schools should “provide the resources and opportunities” for students to explore interdisciplinary practices.

The students test the boundaries of Moment V.1 by Pablo Gnecco of Studio / Studio.

One culprit for this deficiency may be a cultural lag in understanding STEM fields as being compatible with the arts. Erin, who up until recently envisioned studying communications in college, says people are initially surprised by her love of code, just as she was. She claims science and math haven’t typically been her “strongest suits,” but has found a creative outlet in programming. “People often assume that coding is only for left-brained people, which is completely not the case.” She now plans to major in computer science or cognitive science in college and finds herself drawn to the broader scientific problems that ground the apprenticeship project. She says she’s “most excited about understanding the physics that is involved with the visuals; movement is such a complex thing and requires a lot of research and dissecting existing code.” Erin is eager to translate her experience as an artistic programmer and wants to encourages others to broaden their perspectives. She hopes the apprenticeship project will “show people how coding can be creative and is a creative process in itself.”

Erin is already developing her own sensibility as an engineer. When asked about her favorite programming language, she answers enthusiastically, “I love Java! I use it for both my AP Computer Science class and for the creative code apprenticeship. I like how straightforward it is in terms of learning about object oriented programming, and I find it more intuitive and easier to debug compared to Python.” She is eager to talk shop about the project as well, and is looking forward to seeing the work extend beyond her cohort’s imagination onto the Digital Ribbon Screen. “As of now, we’re playing around with code on Processing in Java to understand how we can turn our sketches into something real and generative.”

With projections that the gender gap in computing will only increase over the next decade, these girls’ love of programming appears to be an exception, rather than the rule. But their passion also speaks to the power of proper initiating experiences, as well as the potential of computational curriculums that reward creative thinking.

The Creative Code Youth Apprenticeship project will be on display January 19th-28th, 2017 at 1275 Market Street.

Gray Area’s Creative Code education program teaches computing skills for artistic expression and professional development. We offer multiple 10-Week Immersives, youth apprenticeships and frequent specialized workshops, all with the goal to produce new work. Click here to learn more. This piece was written by Gray Area staff member Anna Ploegh.