Brazilian carnaval meets coding in Oakland


Nathan Fitchett | Contributing Writer

Participants at Friday’s Coding Carnival construct necklaces with their names written in binary code.

By Nathan Fitchett, For The Pitt News

Carnaval in Brazil features women in headdresses, extravagant floats and huge parades. But Pitt’s Coding Carnival featured dancing robots, masks and necklaces with binary code.

Pitt students and community members gathered Friday afternoon in the Center for Creativity in the basement of the University Store on Fifth to participate in an event centered on traditional Brazilian carnival culture and computer code.

The event was comprised of a few different stations spread out around the room, each with their own carnival-themed activity designed to teach basic principles of coding. Annette Vee, director of the English department’s composition program, said she and her fellow organizers created the event to encourage Pitt community members to learn coding literacy.

“We wanted to show that coding can be fun, and it’s nice to have a theme around it,” Vee said.

The event was the result of a cross-continental exchange of ideas between Vee and Luciana Louro, a Ph.D student from Brazil.

Vee is the author of the 2017 book “Coding Literacy,” which explores how coding is quickly becoming its own kind of literacy, like reading or writing. Louro read Vee’s book and decided to apply for funding to come to Pitt and study under Vee. Once she arrived, Louro and Vee formed a reading group with other members of the English and computer science departments on the topic of teaching kids how to code.

Louro worked in Brazil as an education instructor and developed activities to teach coding to kids. The reading group decided they wanted to put on an event based on the activities Louro had created, leading to the Coding Carnival. 

Attendees could participate in several different event activities to learn about coding. One was a mask-making station, where participants would decorate grids numbered with zeros and ones printed on construction paper. For squares with a one, participants would put a sticker or colored sequins, and spaces with a zero were left empty. The completed grid would form a mask pattern, which could be cut out and worn.

Another station featured binary code necklace-making, where participants created necklaces with their names written in binary code. The necklaces were made from loops of string adorned with colorful paper squares with a series of ones and zeros on them. Participants would reduce the letters in their name down to a number and then convert that number into binary. The binary on the necklace would make a sort of secret code with the participant’s name on it. Elise Silva, a Ph.D student in the English department who ran the station, said the goal was to teach participants more than just computer code.

“What this is teaching isn’t really code, it’s more computational thinking,” said Silva. “We’re teaching that counting one to 10 isn’t the only way to count, you can count in ones and zeros as well.”

In the room opposite the craft stations was the robot dance floor, where toy robots spun around in a synchronized routine — part of an exercise meant to teach how computers read and execute commands in a beginner-friendly way. The robots were small, about the size of a shoe, with two little wheels on each side and two sensors that looked like big eyes on the front. Participants could program them to dance in sync with each other by entering a sequence of directions on a remote control and pressing the start button.

Heather Kresge, an MFA candidate for poetry in the English department, was looking around the Center for Creativity for resources for another class when she happened to see the Coding Carnival. After checking it out on a whim, she saw the carnival as a great resource for those looking to learn about coding.

“I have an interest in coding, but I also just wanted to play around with the robots,” Kresge said. “Learning code as a beginner can be frustrating as hell, so being able to bring that abstraction down to something as concrete as, ‘Oh, I’m gonna make robots dance’ is far easier than learning funny brackets and symbols to make a computer say ‘hello world.’”

Along with the various coding activities, there was also a table with assorted refreshments, from traditional Brazilian curries to churros, cookies and other desserts.

Vee said she and Louro designed the event to bring the passion from her book about coding to Pitt community members of all ages.

“The carnival is a place for people across many different identities to gather in Brazil, and so for us here it’s for gathering across ages,” Vee said. “We wanted the event to be all ages, and we wanted the carnival theme to show people that learning about code could be fun.”