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Coding Amplifies the Voices of Young Activists

Freedom Constellations mural
“Freedom Constellations: Dreaming of a World Without Youth Prisons” mural. (All photos by Lia Tremblay)

Rounding the corner at 3rd and Broad in Richmond, just across from the VCU Police Department, you’ll find “Freedom Constellations: Dreaming of a World Without Youth Prisons,” a mural that aims to bring awareness to the issue of youth incarceration in Virginia.

But its message comes from more than the images and words on the wall. Almost as soon as you approach, the mural begins speaking aloud. From speakers affixed to the wall, the youthful voices of teenagers begin to tell you about their hopes for the future.

“In a world without youth prisons,” one of them says, “I feel completely at peace. I hear the laughter and joy of children who will never experience the inside of a cell.”

The mural was a collaboration among three entities: Performing Statistics and Rise for Youth are dedicated to promoting alternatives to youth incarceration, and CodeVA is a nonprofit that works to bring equitable computer science education to Virginia’s students.

The mural combined these forces, with CodeVA handling the more technological side of bringing it to life. Maggie Smith, CodeVA’s Director of Children’s Programs, said the mural project was a perfect fit for their mission.

“We use an arts-integrated approach to attract students who may not know if they’re interested in computer science, or have even been told that computer science is not for them,” she said “We want to give them a way to experience computer science, so they can decide for themselves.”

The technology involved in making the mural interactive is brilliant in its simplicity. Distance sensors detect the presence of a person standing or walking nearby, triggering the activation of an array of tiny lights. Small speakers begin to emit the voices of young people talking about the world they envision. These features were coordinated with a device called a Raspberry Pi.

“It’s an all-in-one computer that has open input and output,” said Zach Mulcahey, CodeVA’s Deputy Director of Children’s Programs. “There are 40 pins on the device that let you control different hardware. The students got to learn how to set those up, and how to write Python code to communicate with all the different sensors and pieces, with the Raspberry Pi at the brain of all that.”

Using their smartphones, viewers can scan QR codes on the mural to access augmented reality technology that reveals more content on the topic of youth justice.

“That was an interesting 3D development environment that allowed us to have some of the other visual elements,” said Mulcahey, “so we had the documentary and lengthier audios available behind those, but in a way where they can still see the mural through their phone.”

Jakson Duimstra, 14, was one of the students who worked on the mural’s technological features. He had attended some CodeVA camps before, but this project offered some new experiences.

“That was the first time I had even touched a Raspberry Pi,” he said. “It’s basically a mini-computer, so you can run code on it. It can control lights, sounds and all that. That part really appealed to me.”

Duimstra said the experience helped him to hone some technical skills, and gave him reason to think about a social issue that was new to him.

“I had never thought of this topic before, but this really shined a light on it for me,” he said “I want people to think about the cause behind it, and why we have children in prisons. No children should be in prisons.”

It was also a chance to practice some problem-solving skills. While working on the distance sensors and the audio they triggered, Duimstra had to reevaluate and change course.

“Originally, I had like four volume settings that changed with the distance,” he said. “But then if you leaned in to listen it would get quieter and quieter, and that would be annoying. So we just changed it to on or off.”

Social distancing protocols also made the experience memorable. They started with some online learning, and then Mulcahey delivered hardware to each student’s doorstep for the hands-on work to be done at home.

“And when we did get together, we had to stay far apart and not share a keyboard,” said Duimstra. “There were just four of us in the room. Two students and two teachers.”

The mural’s location, just outside of CodeVA’s Broad Street office, has given the staff a chance to witness people discovering it as they pass. Smith recalls a man she guessed to be in his 60s, who called out to her as she was leaving one night. He’d seen her working on the mural and wanted to tell her how much he loved it. He told her he had been incarcerated as a teenager himself.

“He said, ‘I don’t have a smartphone, but I made my daughter come down with me last night so we could do the QR code things,’” she recalled. “And listening to all five of the young people’s voices really moved him. It literally spoke to him because he walked past it. He wanted to know more, and he took the extra steps to learn more about these young folks.”

Smith said the mural project was a great example of the versatility of computer science, which can be used to accomplish everything from completing a transaction to recording an album—or elevating an important cause.

“I think it’s important to show art students that computer science  is not just one thing, it really is all around us,” she said. “We try to show students where computer science is around them, that it’s a part of our lives and we need some familiarity with it.”

Duimstra said the experience has reinforced his interest in computer science as a career, and he’s excited to see what’s next.

“It’s given me a bit more experience with coding, and seeing what real-life applications could be in the future,” he said. “I just kind of want to see where it takes me.”

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