Reflecting on Embodied Thinking

Computational Thinking, Creativity, MSU MAET

Embodied thinking rejects the notion that the mind exists separately from the body, but instead recognizes that an awareness of all aspects of the human body, the exertion used in movement, emotional responses, tactile understanding, and gut instinct all play important roles in the act of creation. The related skill of empathy allows one to take the place of another, attempting to feel what they feel, even for an inanimate object, to gain insight into their state of being.

I chose to integrate embodied thinking as it relates to my topic of algorithms in a way that would best serve my end goal of creating an experience that would allow museum visitors understand programming in a relatable way. For that reason, I decided not to follow the well established path of creating a kinesthetic activity that allows learners to act out how data is manipulated in an algorithm, which was my first thought and I think of limited use. Instead, I created a stage show that uses multiple levels of embodied thinking.

I started with thinking how students respond when I discuss placing instructions in a loop during my current outreach program. They tend to get frustrated when trying to explain the process, and end up just making the motion of a circle that repeats itself over and over in the air. I wanted to harness that embodied understanding as it relates to other aspects of an algorithm as well as computational thinking skills. The motions used in the play are used as an abstraction of common ways to solve problems in computing, such as using functions, variables, and conditional logic.. By representing them on the Kinect camera, they can also serve as mnemonic devices and demonstrate how algorithms can recognize motion as well.

At the museum I work at, stage shows often involve a presenter calling volunteers to the front to act as almost as props, such as getting their hair to stand up with static electricity. I wanted to try a different approach, where visitors can act out scenarios to allow them to take the position of characters attempting to solve problems in an efficient way. This role-playing makes use of the empathy needed by actors, while the fairy tale setting provides a path to show how computational thinking can apply to many situations. In a sense, I wanted them to empathize with the computer itself through an understanding of the types of instructions commonly used in programming that machines are well-suited for.

Beyond demonstrating programming concepts through motion, the Root-Bernsteins’ (1999) discussion of the “fusion of body and tool” (p.178) made me consider how that applies to a computer. I think programmers experience being “in the zone” just as athletes do, when the barrier between what they want to accomplish and the tools needed to do so vanishes. I used “spells” that act as instructions created through simple motions so that his barrier can be broken down for visitors as well.

Ultimately, embodied thinking will allow me to communicate that programming is not a passive experience, contrary to the stereotype of a programmer sitting in front of a computer all day. It is an active way of problem solving which can be reinterpreted through motion. This consideration applies to any way of exploring algorithms in a museum setting, and will continue to be explored when applying other creative skills.

References

Root-Bernstein, R. S., & Root-Bernstein, M. M. (1999). Sparks of genius: The thirteen thinking tools of the world’s most creative people. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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