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Paper Programming: Blending Origami with Creative Coding


One might be a little skeptical to encounter origami within a computer science course. But Visiting Assistant Professor David Perkins, who teaches Creative Coding and Origami, explains, “The students are all learning programming languages for the first time, and origami has a language of its own with all its specific folds. So making origami warms my students’ minds up to the task of learning new vocabulary for coding.”

Madeleine Howe '22 - coding, origami
Madeleine Howe '22

Madeleine Howe ’22, who just completed the class, agrees. “The way professor Perkins linked origami to our programming made a lot of sense. He talked about the precision required in both practices — there's basically no room for error in either," she said. “With programming, all of your code has to be written correctly in order for the whole system to run the way you planned … I know in our last project there were a few times when I couldn't run my code and ended up finding I was just missing a semicolon.”

Perkins also uses origami to give his students a sense of patience and precision, which he describes as “two hallmarks of good coders.” Developing skills in teamwork is another side benefit. “Many origami models are modular, meaning that one creates multiple copies of a simple form and then joins these forms to make something complex,” Perkins said. “When I teach a modular model, I give students time to assemble the complex shape from their simple ones, fostering cooperation of the kind found in programming teams who must work together on simple units and then assemble them into a functioning app.”

Michelle Liu '23 - coding, origami
Michelle Liu '23

Commenting on the team-building aspect of the class, Michelle Liu ’23 said, “I really enjoyed the classroom atmosphere. No one was competing against each other for the best code, but everyone was supportive and was willing to help each other.”

Before students were sent home mid-semester due to COVID-19 pandemic, Perkins would begin each class by showing students how to make an origami model. Now he posts one YouTube link each week, along with a photo of himself with the finished model. Students then share photos of themselves with their own creations. 

The uniqueness of the course attracts a diverse group of students. Arielle Saber ’20 said, “I’ve always been intimidated by the Computer Science Department, but I’ve also tried to take classes in as many disciplines as possible during my years at Hamilton so I’m happy I took a chance on this class. … I’m a literature major, so just exercising an entirely different part of my brain has been exciting.”

Estelle Khairallah ’23, who intends to major in physics, said, “I was surprised how much we were able to learn within a short amount of time. It feels like we just had fun and messed with a few programs, but when you look back on it, we learned a lot about coding.”

Perhaps in these days of Zoom meetings and endless emails, one final benefit of combining origami with coding is even more significant now. “Programming is almost entirely an activity of the brain, not the body; origami makes more use of our bodies and takes our eyes off of our screens,” Perkins said.

“It's not just learning how to code but being able to apply that knowledge in creative ways, whether it be musical or art/animation related,” Khairallah concluded.

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