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BigShot: Snap-together camera introduces kids to tech, and to their world

After-school program uses the simple, experimental BigShot camera to teach young students about art, engineering, and culture.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent for The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 2010

After building their cameras, which come as a kit, students in the program – some as young as 8 – take them out on a quest for images.

Courtesy of Computer Vision Lab/Columbia University

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New York

Nicholas Serbedio, a sixth-grader, has never seen a camera like this before. It’s bigger and heavier than usual, with a wide, gaping wheel on the front. On the back, where the viewing screen is “supposed” to be, there is a shimmering green circuit board.

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“I was amazed,” Nicholas says of the moment a few hours earlier, when he first picked it up. “I thought, ‘How can a camera look like this? How can somebody build this?’ ”

Nicholas is possibly the most earnest of the 12 elementary school students attending a small workshop at Columbia University in New York City on a nasty winter Saturday. Though they’ve spent the morning fiddling with a special kind of camera called BigShot, it would be wrong to call this a photography workshop.

In fact, when Shree Nayar, the inventor of BigShot, looks at these kids, he doesn’t necessarily see budding artists; he sees cultural ambassadors, and even future engineers.

“BigShot is about: Here’s a camera, let’s build it and learn. Let’s go become photographers. Let’s learn about other cultures and communities,” he says.

Mr. Nayar conceived of BigShot four years ago as an educational trick of sorts. Painted in colors inspired by a bag of M&Ms, and large enough for kids to hold comfortably, BigShot is a build-it-yourself camera. It comes in a kit with less than 20 parts that snap and screw together simply. When it’s finished, users can peer through the transparent back and, with the help of labels preprinted on the plastic, show curious friends how the camera works. The labels point out the 
microprocessor, the memory chip, and other features that let this homemade device digitally capture, store, and reproduce images.

BigShot takes normal, panoramic, and even three-dimensional pictures – which, yes, require kids to don those blue- and red-lens glasses – but the real point of the camera isn’t the photos.

“It’s to use the camera as an excuse to expose [the kids] to as many science and engineering concepts as possible,” says Nayar, a professor of computer science at Columbia University.

That’s where the gadgets come in. Nayar’s camera has a crank on the right hand side and a dynamo – unequivocally the workshop group’s favorite piece – inside. The pieces work together to power the camera (in the unlikely absence of an AA battery) and to teach an engineering lesson.

“If the battery runs out, you can crank it,” explains sixth-grader MacKenzie Goulboum. “Then the 
dynamo gives it energy – I think.”

According to BigShot’s website, MacKenzie has pretty much got it. Turning the crank spins three gears inside the camera. That spinning generates energy, known scientifically as mechanical energy, that moves into the dynamo, a tiny power generator that turns mechanical into electrical energy. The electrical energy from the dynamo allows the camera to take a picture.

All of that is technically gratuitous, of course; this camera can run on a single battery. But things that spin, grind, and whir teach intimidating, and sometimes seemingly boring, science subjects.

“You can expose them to mechanics, to electromagnetism, to power generation and storage,” Nayar says. “The building process is a bait for learning.”
Before the students snap a piece in, they learn the science about how it works. They define pixels. They analyze beams of light. They compare the physiology of the human eye to this camera’s three lenses.

Nayar is something of a camera geek. A specialist in computational optics, he has invented far more sophisticated machinery, including a camera with a 360-degree “eye.” That camera takes circular pictures, which a computer later decodes and turns into sweeping, rectangular panoramic shots. The work stems from a lifelong fascination with art, and a firm belief in the unique role of the lens.

“It’s a very special piece of technology, the camera itself,” he says. “Using it is a very emotional thing. It allows us to express ourselves, to visually communicate with one another. To me, it represents the convergence of science and art, and today, it plays an enormous role in society.”