Adventures in Science

Day of Doctorow

Cory Doctorow


On February 9, 2012 Northern Illinois University’s STEM Outreach program hosted an exciting STEMfest for high school students themed around the book Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

First, here is a brief review of the book to set the theme.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is a young adult science fiction book that follows the exploits of an ingenious teen hacker named Marcus. The story opens with the shock of a horrendous terrorist attack in San Francisco. Marcus and his innocent group of friends are secretly rounded up and detained at a paramilitary gulag by the Department of Homeland Security. There, they are unjustly detained and inhumanely interrogated. Once he is finally released, Marcus, along with a growing network of outraged young adults, uses his creative understanding of technology and the internet to galvanize a resistance movement against the reactionary and increasingly authoritarian control of the Department of Homeland Security.

Doctorow set his novel in a parallel time line or near future to ours and illustrates a set of possible abuses of power and invasions of privacy made possible by real life technology. It demonstrates how we have allowed ourselves to trade a lifestyle of electronic conveniences in exchange for having our movements and behaviors tracked for questionably benign reasons like marketing data or to serve over-hyped hysteria in the name of high school security. Little Brother points out that all of that otherwise benign data could easily be tapped to discredit, implicate, or even detain you.

To counteract these potential problems, you first need to make yourself aware of them. After that, it’s a good idea to develop a technical understanding of how these systems work. Cory Doctorow provides his readers with a good bibliography to pursue more information in the back of the novel. Knowledge is power to resist abuses of power.

But this is not a dystopian book. This is dystopia averted and overcome. His thrilling and creative command of technology empowers Marcus, his friends, and family. Marcus is always the master of his computers, programs, and the internet. He’s no slave to his devices or the companies that produce them. He has learned to manipulate technology in creative ways and has the mad skills to survive and be free.

It was a really fun book to read. Now I can tell you about the STEMfest!

The Day of Doctorow event at Northern Illinois University started with a variety of science and technology workshops. I asked a group of students from the Rock Valley College Upward Bound college prep program which of the workshops they liked the best. Yanely, 15, enjoyed the fiber optics presentation. Jose, 14, thought the Faraday cage workshop was awesome. Cynthia, 15, really liked the cell phone workshop.

I went to check these workshops out. From the hallway the laser workshop was dark and flashing with glints of multicolored moving light. Inside, the students were having fun fiddling with the different laser exhibits. They flashed laser pointer beams through a large water-filled cylinder to understand fiber optics. They saw how an iPod could beam music to a speaker by laser with a SpectraSound kit.  The students also manipulated beam splitters on laser mazes to see what they could get the beams to do. The working demo of a helium neon (HeNe) laser showing the internal components of the laser intrigued me. Jeremy Benson, STEM Outreach and Engagement Associate for NIU kindly explained the HeNe laser to me. In addition to doing STEM outreach events at the university, he visits different elementary and middle schools doing science talks. He designed many of the demonstrations that the students saw that day and that he takes on the road.

The next workshop was Virtual Worlds. This was a computer lab set up with 12 stations of Apple laptops and the instructor’s computing stand with a projection onto a large media screen. The teens were in the process of changing the appearance of their avatars in OpenSimulator, an open source simulation program and virtual world. OpenSim is free. You can download the program and customize and sim to your hearts’ content. Aline Click, Director of Digital Convergence Labs was the presenter for this workshop. She said that OpenSim is good for middle school and high school students.

The Video Game Design workshop was in the adjacent room. When I walked in, there were two students standing and waving their arms around in front of a large flat panel TV as if they were playing Wii. There was also a projection of the game onto a media screen at the front of the room. The teens took turns playing the game. At first glance, they looked like they were playing a chemistry game because of the periodic table style graphics with element abbreviations. These graphics were flashing on and off at the top of the screen while little scorpion guys ran around gathering up colored balls. Eric Russell, the presenter, was calling play-by-play, “She needs to get another electron. You’re missing a neutron; get it!” When the workshop ended, I asked one of the presenters some questions about what I had just witnessed. He said the kids were playing a brand new kinesthetic physics-based video game. I told them that this surprised me, and told them I saw the periodic table graphics and assumed I was seeing a chemistry game. The presenter, Jason Underwood, acknowledged that it was a kind of fuzzy area for most people and the distinction is, in this game, the users are building the components of the atoms–which is physics–and not causing reactions between atoms–which would be chemistry. The game called Picodroid uses Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Kinect interactive controller technology and is still in beta. Patty Sievert, STEM Outreach Coordinator, commissioned the game. Picodroid was entirely designed and developed by students.

I heard that the Faraday cage workshop was getting raves. I headed upstairs so I wouldn’t miss out. Unfortunately, I had missed it, and the presenters were packing up. They took pity on me and showed me what the students learned that morning. Presenter and senior physics major, Gregory Maj, pulled the Tesla coil back out of the box and plugged it in. He unwrapped a fluorescent tube and showed me how the Tesla coil could transfer a charge to the tube and light it up. Then he wrapped a piece of wire mesh around the entire length of the tube and brought the tube and mesh within range of the charge of the Tesla coil again. The tube did not light up this time. He explained that the students experimented with several materials as possible insulators around the fluorescent tube and determined that the wire mesh was the best, followed by the aluminum foil. Maj and Andrew Moser, electrical engineering major, also gave examples of Faraday cages that we use in our everyday lives like microwaves, cars, and coaxial cables.

NIU physics student, Gregory Maj, demonstrates a Faraday cage

During the workshops the presenters made a point of mentioning their summer camp programs. The array of science, technology and engineering camps NIU STEM Outreach offers is impressive. They have very sophisticated programs for middle and high school students available in programming (including PIC 10F development for iPad, iPhone and Android), video game design, and roller coaster engineering to name just a few.

STEMfest workshops focused on do-it-yourself tech like open source programs, video game programming, cell phone tech, and the ability to creatively modify commercial devices such as the iPod with a SpectraSound kit. These were all great ways to introduce students to the kind of technical ingenuity that Cory Doctorow’s lead character displays in Little Brother.

After the workshops, Cory Doctorow gave an hour-long presentation. After that. there was a panel discussion with a few professors from Northern Illinois University. It’s an eye-opening two hours. You can watch that here.

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