At NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), nothing is what it seems. Just past the elevator doors opening onto the program’s sprawling Manhattan loft space, I came across two trash cans sitting next to each other. One was just a trash can, but the other was wired to an old paint can, some busted circuit boards and other bits of techno-junk. A cryptic sign informed me that this was a student project and not to be thrown away.

“I’m think it’s some kind of musical instrument, but I guess we won’t really know until next week,” said Kelly Saxton, the ITP first-year student who volunteered to show me around a few days before the 2014 Spring Expo, when the students fire up their most interesting projects for the public. In the crowds at ITP’s two annual expos, Saxton explained, there were bound to be a sprinkling of advertising recruiters, tech entrepreneurs, reporters like me, and even the occasional Defense Department recruiter.

A look at the names of classes taught at ITP is both intriguing and confusing. Some class names are puns, like “Cloud Commuting,” or “Drawing on Everything.” Some are poetic, like “Cabinets of Wonder,” “Sensitive Buildings,” and “Talking Fabrics.” And some are downright incomprehensible, like “Cooking with Sound,” and “Lean Launchpad.” One ITP class, called “Redial,” teaches students how to hack the phone system and requires them to sign a legal waiver before enrolling.

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Kell Saxton, ITP class of 2015, holds up one arm of a multi-person Octopus costume she made, an illustration of distributed intelligence. Photo by Evan Leatherwood.

Exactly what ITP teaches is fast-moving and hard to classify, but that’s been the point almost since the program was started in 1979 as part of NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts. While it’s most often compared to MIT’s Media Lab, the closest you can get to describing ITP briefly is to call it by its unofficial name, “The Center for the Recently Possible.”

During the three days I spent at ITP, I learned how a cutting-edge tech and new media program stays out front, and how the work being done by ITP’s students reflects not just what’s next for media and tech, but for media and tech education.

I also got to play with some really cool gadgets.

From Adafruit to Arduino

ITP occupies an entire floor in a building on NYU’s Greenwich Village campus. It’s a jumbled, open-plan space lined with faculty offices, heavy equipment, and an array of screens hooked up to bewildering pieces of technology. It’s the graduate school equivalent of the proverbial Silicon Valley garage. Somewhere on this floor, I found myself thinking, might be the inventor of the next big gadget or app.

ITP has already produced its share of stars. While still a student at ITP, Dennis Crowley co-invented Dodgeball, the forerunner of his wildly successful startup, FourSquare. Dan O’Sullivan, an ITP grad and the program’s director, coined “physical computing” to describe an experimental ITP class. On our way across the floor to see a dress being grown from mold, Saxton pointed out ITP alum and faculty member Tom Igoe, co-inventor of the Arduino, a postcard-sized computer that costs anywhere from $4 to $40. Once I learned to spot them, I noticed one on just about every desk at ITP. With 20 pages of Arduino-related Amazon products and at least 60 or so Arduino how-to books, including two in the For Dummies series, it’s safe to say they are showing up on the desks of hobbyists and engineers around the world.

The Arduino, and similar products like Raspberry Pi, are helping to make tech innovation cheaper and more accessible than ever before. ITP students will tell you that two of the best places to get an Arduino, and to plug into a community that will teach you how to use one, are the websites Adafruit and SparkFun. Both sites sell modular, off-the-shelf components that can be assembled and rejiggered into just about any imaginable prototype.

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Justin Lange, ITP class of 2014, with his project “New Circuits for Dancing with Light,” a gesture controlled array of lights woven into a glove that allowes the user to create multicolored patterns in the air. Photo by Evan Leatherwood.

AdaFruit and SparkFun, and other sites like Codecademy, also have free, open-source forums that will teach you the basics of software engineering. Building a simple robot or sensor, or even hacking existing devices to carry out custom functions (like remotely controlling your coffee maker to get a fine-tuned espresso) no longer requires the ability to solder circuits and write code from scratch.

All of this has made the learning curve from idea to prototype a lot less steep than it used to be. It has also been driving a small scale revolution in tech literacy in the fullest sense of the word. Traditionally, being literate meant being able both to comprehend and generate written language. But outside Silicon Valley and computer science graduate programs, being computer literate doesn’t mean you can write code or build gadgets. But now, any determined autodidact with a laptop and a modest budget can obtain the rudiments of what ITP students pay two years of full tuition to receive.

O’Sullivan thinks this online democratization of tech education is inevitable, the next in the line of disruptions like the ones that have been unleashed on the journalism and recording industries. He thinks it’s ironic that ITP might be displaced by the very trends its graduates helped start, but he remains upbeat. “In fact I am pretty optimistic that the changes will be better for most people (not so much for establishment players like me),” O’Sullivan wrote via email. He also said that, so far, the Internet’s increasing array of free educational resources haven’t led to fewer enrollments at ITP. “Applicants keep lining up in record numbers for the old style [of education]” O’Sullivan said.

Keeping the Cutting Edge Sharp

The ITP students I spoke to said that daily face time with their peers and with faculty are what make ITP’s traditional, bricks-and-mortar education still worth it. When the students and faculty spend time in the same room, the end result is an experience that is more than the sum of its parts.

In an interview at his campus office, I asked O’Sullivan how ITP stays current. “In a word, adjuncts,” he replied.

About a third of ITP’s classes are dreamed up and taught by adjunct professors, who find their way to the program from various corners of New York’s buzzing tech, media, science and art worlds. Some are recruited and some apply. On the program’s website there is even a “suggest a class” button, open to anyone. The up-to-the-minute interests of the adjunct roster, which changes yearly, help ITP stay apace with the outside world.

Past adjuncts have included: Douglas Rushkoff, media critic and host of the PBS series, Merchants of Cool, Paul Bartlett, part of NASA’s operations team on the Mars Exploration Rover mission, and Francois Grey, former IT director for CERN labs.

The upside of the yearly churn of adjuncts is that ITP’s students get a current education. “We don’t have to wait for a tenured professor to die for a new idea to be infused into the program,” said O’Sullivan, “but the downside is that not all of those ideas are going to be winners.”

Student diversity also infuses fresh ideas into the curriculum. Among the sudents I met at the Spring Expo were a former corporate marketer from Dubai, a former art professor from Vanderbilt University, an experimental musician with a background in finance, and a past town hall organizer for Bill DeBlasio. One second-year student, still active in film production, commuted to classes from his home and studio on a houseboat moored off Brooklyn.

The only biographical details the students had in common seemed to be their self-description as “creative technologists” and some past attendance at Burning Man.

Learning at Play

Though a motley bunch, the students created projects for the Spring Expo that hit on a few shared themes. Most common was hacking education.

Walking the floor a few days before the Expo, I met ITP second-year Maria Paula Saba. After she corrected my misidentification of a bioprinter as a mere 3D printer (nothing at ITP is what it seems), I asked her about the rings of blinking LEDs on her desk. Saba’s creations, called Jewliebots, are bracelets inlaid with costume jewelry that lights up in colored patterns which can be customized by the user. Saba’s target market is teenage girls, and her hope is that, while the girls think they’ll be making cool accessories, they’ll really be learning how to write code.

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Yiyang Liang, ITP class of 2015, co-creator of “Invisible Cities,” which uses data visualization techniques to make maps of Italo Calvino’s novel of the same name. Photo by Evan Leatherwood.

This playful, project-based approach to teaching tech literacy is how ITP itself operates. “I’ve always felt you’re going to get further with whimsy and hope, rather than fear,” O’Sullivan said. The challenge is to get the students to ignore their fear of failure and try as many new things as possible during their four semesters. “The key thing about play,” O’Sullivan said, “is that it makes failure look like a good thing.”

The trend among the students is to take not only what they’ve learned, but how they’ve learned it, package it as a gadget or an app, and release it to the world.

That’s what ITP second-year Alexandra Diracles had in mind when she created Vidcode, an app designed to get girls into coding while they’re still in high school or middle school, early enough for them to have a shot at a tech career. If you’re not excited enough about coding to do it for fun in your off hours, there’s no chance you’ll make it in Silicon Valley, Diracles said.

The Vidcode site, decked out in pastels, featues a picture of two smiling girls with a laptop under the slogan “Get ready to create your own awesome video filters with your friends!” The user starts with a video, then drags the effects they want from a menu into a box where the raw code is filled in, which can then be manipulated. When they’re done, a social media prompt pops up with the hashtag, “#icodedthis.”

In Night Witches, a game by ITP second-year Caroline Sinders, the player starts out in a dark forest at night, emerging from the wreckage of an airplane that has just crashed behind enemy lines. The objective is to find your way back to base. The player takes on the identity of historical figure Nadesedha Popova, a Ukranian woman who flew 852 bombing raids against the Axis Powers in World War II, part of a unit of female bombers the Nazis nicknamed the “night witches.” Like Jewliebots and Vidcode, Night Witches is meant to educate as an effortless side effect of having fun.

The knack ITPers have for making complex subjects accessible has caught the attention of other institutions. At a Greenwich Village cafe, surrounded by an eccentric midday crowd, Kelly Saxton gave me a run down of who’s come to ITP for help recently. There’s a pair of scientists who want to get the public excited about real time images of the gestation and birth of nematode worms. There’s a CUNY grad student who needs 3D imaging technology to make detailed visual records of dolphin speech. An arborist working for New York City wants to print 3D replicas of root systems, and the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, closed down for repairs, needs a way to make their vast digital collections more engaging. And that’s just what’s cropped up in the course of Saxton’s own classwork.

Tech’s Gender Battle

The projects profiled in this article so far have been designed by women mostly for other women. That wasn’t my intention, though it’s not an unlikely outcome either, given ITP’s high rate of female enrollment. Fifty-two percent of ITP’s class of 2015 are women, about double the national average for women in computing master’s programs. The number of women in Silicon Valley is notoriously low, and the number of female students in computer science graduate programs in the United States has been in steady decline since it peaked in 1985. It’s no wonder that ITP’s female students are busy with projects aiming to draw more women to technology.

ITP’s gender balance is helped by the continued influence of the late Red Burns, who ran the program from 1983 until 2011. Burns is called the godmother of New York’s Silicon Alley. Since her first day on the job, she advocated strongly that technology should serve human needs and not the other way around, an idea that still infuses ITP’s culture.

ITP’s strong female presence and its humanistic focus reinforce one another.

“The men here seem more concerned with how the technology works, while the women seem more concerned with what the technology is doing,” said Patricia Zablah, an ITP second-year who created Hack it Back, a day-long workshop that teaches young women how to identify and combat sexist bias in the media.

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Amelia Winger-Bearskin, ITP class of 2015, holding a prototype of Beacon, a concealed camera and GPS locator worn by women and girls to help protect them from crime. Photo by Evan Leatherwood.

Rucha Patwardhan and Amelia Bearskin, two first-year ITP students, have created a device called Beacon, which they hope will be a weapon in the hands of women around the world fighting not only for equality, but also for their very safety.

Bearskin, a former art professor at Vanderbilt who gave up tenure track to be a student again, is Cayuga/Seneca, one of the Native American nations that make up the Iroquois Confederacy. Female victims of assault on the reservation near her hometown and in many countries around the world are often unwilling to go to the police because they lack hard evidence of the crimes committed against them. Beacon consists of a tiny camera, concealed on a woman’s body as a wearable bauble, like a small stuffed animal or a large piece of jewelry, that takes pictures every five seconds and sends them to an app on the wearer’s cell phone. When the wearer hits a panic button, their coordinates and the last five minutes of photographs are automatically emailed to a preset list of contacts. Beacon aims to right injustice, and also to embolden the women who wear it. At $30, the device is affordable to NGOs, non-profits, and even individual women in the developing world.

The Real World Punchline

Advancing positive social change, or raising awareness of worthy causes, was behind almost all the projects at the Spring Expo, even the ones that seemed constructed as elaborate jokes.

The mysterious, wired-up trashcan that I first saw near the door turned out to be Daft Junk, a robot band created by Bearskin and fellow first-years Aankit Patel and Mike Ricca. Inspired by large scale technoloy, like NYU’s new $125 million power plant, which uses green energy to power the campus at a fraction of the cost and impact of past methods, the team made Daft Junk with as little money and energy as possible. They borrowed solar panels, used trash scavenged from Tisch’s sub-basement, and bought junked parts online, like old pager motors and car door power locks. A set of sliding controls changed the speed at which the “band members” (the paintcan became “Colonel Clank,” the trash can, “Gongzilla”) rattled and banged out their tunes. The faster the beat, the more energy consumed. The whole project cost less than $150.

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Mike Ricca, ITP class of 2015, with Colonel Clank and Gongzilla, members of Daft Junk, a robot band that cranks out tunes on a strict energy budget. Photo by Evan Leatherwood.

Daft Junk might seem silly, as even Ricca admitted, but it’s a joke with a real world punchline. While the U.S. has made some headway toward creating energy from trash, we are decades behind Europe. And despite seeming to exist entirely in cyberspace, big data companies, like Google and Facebook, maintain data centers around the country that pollute and waste colossal amounts of energy. Energy budgets for companies and even for people are in our future. Said Ricca, “Daft Junk was about coming up with an energy budget first, and seeing what we could do within those contraints.”

Daft Junk is also vintage ITP, where students can take spare parts, raw data, some big ideas and make music with them.

Correction: A previous version of this article mentioned author James Atlas as a past ITP adjunct. He does not currently teach at ITP, but may do so in the future.

Evan Leatherwood is a Slifka Fellow at the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy, & Education at Fordham University. His work has appeared on New York Public Television and in The Nation, the New York Daily News, and online at Editor & Publisher, Columbia Journalism Review, and Public Broadcasters International.