Western Oregon University Dance Professor Darryl Thomas’ latest touring project, in addition to his well-known Rainbow Dance Theatre, has an innovative and ambitious mission: inspiring young children to explore computer coding.
Since 2013, Thomas and a troupe have been presenting iLumiDance to schoolchildren visiting WOU. The program focuses on dancers who are wearing black suits covered in electroluminescent (EL) wires. Dancers perform in the dark, and the colored EL wires light up according to their programming. The lighted wires help the dancers tell various stories, such as the Garden of Eden. The second part of the presentation involves bringing young kids to the stage to teach them to program a stick figure to dance.
Last fall, however, iLumiDance went mobile. Thomas and a handful of dancers visited dozens of elementary and middle schools—even some high schools—to sow the seed of interest in computer coding in Marion and Polk counties.
“We decided to take it into the schools to introduce kids to ideas about ‘How do we use computers? How do we use programming? How does an artist use a computer to create artistic collaborations,’ ” Thomas explained. “Usually, you think about programming as being a functional thing, not an artistic medium. The question is how do we bring those two ideas together?”
If the melding of a physical endeavor like dance and a mental endeavor like coding seems unlikely, that’s exactly the type of thinking Thomas wants to address. The unexpected interdisciplinary pairing actually makes a lot of sense. The brain dictates the body’s movements just as coding controls a computer’s actions.
In the end, the goal is to use the concept to show children—particularly those in underserved populations—that coding has all kinds of applications, many of which can include fun. At the assemblies, it is always the part where students participate in the activity that resonates with youths.
“We want to appeal to kids who would not normally think that they could be a computer programmer some day,” Thomas said. “It appeals to kids who are into artsy stuff and creative kinds of things. Our program says ‘Here are things you can do that are creative that also use a computer in a way that’s not purely functional.’ ”
The next step forward in Thomas’ plan is to present iLumiDance workshops in schools. The dance group already has a packed schedule of visits on the calendar, starting with a trip to Canada. The workshops will take the concept of the school assembly and bring a hands-on version to a smaller group. Each schoolchild will have a specially engineered device he or she will use to program the six-color EL wire on an assigned body part. At the end of the workshop, each team will come together to make the stickman dance to a beat-driven music track.
Thomas hopes the fun project will spark an appreciation for coding in young kids, who might eventually study computer science in college. He laments the lack of coding literacy education in public schools and a lack of computer science teachers. Thomas envisions a future where coding instruction will be on par with reading and math education.
“Over time, we will expect kids to be able to communicate with machines, to code,” Thomas said. “In Europe, they are already doing it from kindergarten on. Students are learn to speak the language of computers. It’s like how reading and writing were hundreds of years ago. Only the elite did it. But over time, reading and writing became something every one learned to do.”
To that end, the third part of the iLumiDance mission is to teach current educators to incorporate coding instruction into the curriculum. Thomas has worked with Adele Schepige in the College of Education to plan a professional development course that would meet teachers’ continuing education requirements and get coding lessons out to more students.
“I can only see so many kids. I can see, maybe, two classes a week and that’s a lot,” Thomas said. “But a teacher has a 25-year career and sees the kids every day. So if they can doing coding as part of the curriculum, they are going to have much more of an impact. And they can apply the coding concepts to whatever interests they have.”
It is not just teachers and schoolchildren who benefit from the iLumiDance presentations. WOU student dancers who are involved in the program get exposure to life as a professional dancer and all the challenges—traveling, unfamiliar stages, rehearsals—that come with it. They love working with the kids, though, and are glad WOU is supportive of the community outreach.
“For me, being a part of iLumiDance means being a part of something bigger,” said Kristie Lauren ’18. “Dance and art can be quite self-gratifying, but doing outreach allows for us to give back and share our passion for dance with many who would otherwise not have access to the arts. And the response from the children is the best part of it all! During the show they gasp, ooh and ahh. It is sincerely heart-warming.”
WOU gets a boost from the outreach as well. Not only do Thomas and the dancers tell the kids about the opportunities at WOU, but the presentations demonstrate that Western is a place where collaboration and innovation are supported.
“(iLumiDance) shows a lot about the schools integrity,” Lauren said. “At WOU we care about our community and how we can improve it. The students, teachers and faculty know that we as continue to learn and evolve, we owe it to others to contribute.”