CSAIL opens lab to 150 local students for "Hour of Code"

Robots and a virtual visit from will.i.am aim to get kids excited about programming.
Robots and a virtual visit from will.i.am aim to get kids excited about programming.
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Yesterday CSAIL hosted 150 local students for its first annual “Hour of Code” demo fair, tied to the international initiative aimed at getting young people excited about programming.

Researchers showed off their work to math and computer science students from schools throughout greater Boston, including the cities of Cambridge, Dorchester, Marblehead, Roxbury, and Somerville.

The event also included a surprise video message from musician, entrepreneur, and philanthropist will.i.am, who commended the students on their efforts to practice programming.

“Since 2006 I’ve been visiting CSAIL to check out all the amazing projects there,” said will.i.am. “It’s made me realize that computer scientists are truly today’s rock stars.”

Among the projects on display were self-assembling “M Blocks” that can spin, spring, and slide into different configurations; a self-driving wheelchair and other forms of assistive technology; and a "robot garden” with origami-inspired robots that can move and change color with the touch of a tablet.

Maya Reynoso Williams, a student at the Community Charter School of Cambridge, was impressed with PhD student Neal Wadhwa’s video-magnification software that can capture miniscule motions. “Without that program no one would be able to visualize or even know that there are smaller, more exaggerated movements that the naked human eye can't detect on its own,” she said.

CSAIL Director Daniela Rus kicked off the event by inviting graduate students Patrick Barragan and Elena Glassman to speak about how they got involved in programming, and also telling her own story about why she thinks coding is fun, exciting, and important to teach.

"The way I see it, computer science is as vital a subject as the three Rs of reading, writing, and arithmetic," said Rus, the Andrew (1956) and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. "Where learning to read and write opens you up to the world of stories, and learning math opens you up to the world of numbers, learning to code opens you up more broadly to the wide world of information, and figuring out how to use, organize, and learn from all human knowledge."

To date, approximately 70 million students have done an hour of programming as part of the Hour of Code, which was launched last year by the organization code.org and takes place during Computer Science Education Week. Companies like Apple and Microsoft have also jumped onboard with special programs, while on Monday President Obama became the first sitting president to write a line of code.