Scratch Day 2015

Why we teach

Education sits at the core of what we do. Our focus on education is about accessibility and opportunity: the more people with the power to prototype and build out their own ideas, the more innovation we will see. But it’s not just about teaching people to become the next Gates or Zuckerberg, it’s about giving people the skills and resources they need to share their unique contributions with a larger community. We do that by teaching code, in conjunction with design and storytelling, as a skill one can use to create.

The first semester of Fathom teaching Information Design at MIT

This fall marked our second semester teaching a course in information design at MIT. The class breaks away from both traditional design and computer science courses by teaching design and code together as tools that support one another, as opposed to separating them into two disciplines. As a result, we get a mix of architecture, physics, engineering, you-name-it students in the class — all with various levels of code and design experience. This mirrors the fluid environment in which we work, which allows us to merge design, development, and narrative in each project. By teaching code, design, and storytelling all integrated together, we’re showing our students not only how to take their own ideas and technically build them, but create pieces that will more actively engage others, because they’ve been thinking about the work’s final context and audience all along.

The MIT course is our main teaching endeavor, but it’s important to recognize that that reaches a particular subset of potential students. So we also like to spend time with groups like Girls Who Code, who focus on bringing in voices we still hear far too little from in “tech.” And we’re excited to have the opportunity to share our take on technology with the girls. During visits to the studio, we talk about how there is more than one way to be “in tech,” from writing, research, analysis, design, and of course, code.

Girls Who Code visitors playing with our Processing for Raspberry Pi photo booth

We’ve also worked with students at Olin College in Sara Hendren’s course, which focuses on teaching engineers how technology can be applied outside of school, specifically in designs that assist those with disabilities or make our public spaces more accessible. We like seeing programs such as this that push computer science students past the idea of what billion-dollar app can I make next, and make them look at other ways technology can be applied throughout all industries.

Leslie working with her all-girls Lego robotics team (Photo credit)

Even outside of the office, many of us volunteer our time working in various areas of design and computer science education. Leslie has been the coach of a Lego robotics team for girls for the past three years. Originally an activity she started while she was at Lincoln Lab, she continues to work with the girls to teach them the foundations of programming and mechanical design. She’s also been part of numerous hardware workshops, showing kids ways they can blend code and industrial design — all while getting to physically build something awesome with their own hands.

This past summer, Olivia volunteered at MIT’s Scratch Day, helping kids use Scratch (though they didn’t need much help!) to control a series of lights and surfaces and experiment with color, light, and shapes. She also assisted with a Girls Who Build workshop in image processing, in which girls created their own Instagram-esque photo filters in code.

Scratch Day 2015

In these workshops and clubs, we’ve seen kids learn not just about how to code, but how to problem solve, build, invent, iterate on their ideas, and ask themselves questions. These fundamental concepts are applicable across all fields, so even students who don’t ultimately pursue careers in programming or design can benefit from this kind of hands-on learning.

Ben giving a talk with the Processing IDE on screen (Photo credit)

And all of this ties back to our roots with Ben being the co-creator of Processing — a programming language, development environment, and community designed to help bridge the gap between artists and engineers — which he continues to develop both in and outside of the office. Since its start, Processing has been used as a tool for teaching code in a classroom setting, and we continue to use it ourselves around the office and in the course at MIT.

At the end of the day, we’re not quite a conventional tech company, but we’re not really a typical design firm either. We are a group of dedicated individuals using code and design as tools to make work the best way we know how. By being able to share what we’ve learned about design and code, we hope to enable others — whether that’s in information design, painting, farming, or building — to further their ideas and produce work they find meaningful.

—Olivia Glennon