Lights flash, fade, and change color to the beat of Christmas music in an ever-changing light show at Rotary Winter Wonderland. Every year, its setup of arches, stars, and other features are brought to life by high school programmers.
Students enrolled in Introduction to Computer Programming at Marshfield High School start creating their personal animated light show in September. This semester, 48 students programmed one class period a week, with options to work at home and during after-school or Saturday morning workshops as needed.
“This is serious business for students. They demonstrate a strong sense of service to our community and the needs of our citizenry,” said Charles Treankler, teacher. “It’s rewarding for me to watch students’ passion and creativity develop throughout the design process.”
Using the Light-O-Rama software, students can use color and special effects to create highly individualized light shows.
“I like using the Light-O-Rama software because it’s a simplified version of the professional development environments we use in computer programming,” said Treankler. “It’s a powerful reminder that you don’t need a highly sophisticated tool to deliver phenomenal results.”
The layout of the Rotary Winter Wonderland animated light setup has changed dramatically four times, with the 18-foot Hex Tower as the newest addition and several 3D stars. Most objects are now red, green, and blue, adding more choices for the programmers to play with patterns, such as making all the stars red at a certain beat and blue for another. The configuration consists of 360 individual channels attached to 40 different objects.
“You hear students talking about arches, and mini-megas, tri-trees, chases, fades,” said Treankler. “The easiest way to describe what the Light-O-Rama software does would be to watch a video that features the Bellagio or Dubai water fountain shows. Software like Light-O-Rama allows professionals to design shows like those, but instead of water fountains, we’re sequencing lights and sound.”
The sheer scale of the project can seem like a huge undertaking for beginning coders, but having a real-world correlation is a plus.
“It’s really daunting. Everything looks scary in the beginning,” said freshman Kairi Kim, who programmed ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.’ ”Now that it’s done, it’s really rewarding.”
“This becomes a great exercise in ‘chunking,’ or breaking a big problem into smaller, more manageable pieces,” Treankler said. “The same is true in software development. Some applications are mind-numbing when we first begin the process, but by creating smaller tasks, our solutions come into focus.”
“It takes a really long time, but I enjoyed it,” said junior Simeon Fyksen, who chose ‘Hark the Herald, Angels Sing.’ “I would do it again.”
“I watch other people’s shows around the room and get inspired, because if I see something cool, I try to recreate it in mine to the best of my ability,” said sophomore Emily Sautebin, who programmed a holiday mix.
The project, though sometimes tedious for students, is an exercise in task management.
“Throughout the process we are collaborating with the design committee and classmates, we’re planning for the next phase, designing configurations and adaptations to current objects, developing our light sequences, testing animation techniques for the configuration as well as individual objects, and constantly evaluating our progress,” Treankler said.
Students spend time sequencing patterns and can copy that pattern over to an identical part of the song. By doing so, they realize the importance of reusability and scalability in the software development process to make a project manageable.
“It takes a lot of time to meticulously scroll through,” said sophomore Matthew Lee, who chose ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.’ “You try to keep it on the beat, and make patterns by having the same effect that you used in in a different part of the song reappear.”
The top consideration for students when programming their light show was to line up the sequence with the beat of the song.
“Go with the beat and line everything up to the beat because if it’s off, it just looks bad,” said senior Weston Schlafke, who did ‘Carol of the Bells.’
“Lining up with the beat is the main thing,” said junior Minh Tyler, who programmed ‘Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).’ “It’s a lot of work.”
“It’s very beat-oriented, my song, so I’m matching it up to the beat as well as I can,” said sophomore Jordan Wiskerchen, whose song is ‘Christmas is Coming.’ “I was really surprised by how little you could do each day, but it’s really coming along. I wanted it to look simple.”
Students look forward to watching how the 2D colors and flashes they see on their computer screens translate to the 3D light show, and getting positive feedback. Families will be attending an open house in early December to get a firsthand appreciation for the shows by trying their hand at computer programming. Parents and teachers all receive a list of show times.
“It’s fun for teachers to be able to recognize the names of students they had in elementary or middle school, and then go watch their shows,” said Treankler. “Grandparents are the best, of course! I get tons of emails and text from parents, teachers, and community members, and every note is a credit to the tremendous effort and talents of my students.”
Besides Best of Show, six awards for creativity and innovation are awarded each year. Recent Best of Show recipients include 2014 Josh Lang, 2015 Ayush Shukla, 2016 Michael Reeser, and 2017 Josh Gibson with the 2018-19 award yet to be determined. Last year’s Creativity Awards went to Will Peterson, Garrett Anderson, and Tyler Binder. The Innovation Awards went to Ayva James, Allie Bacholl, and Ariel Fernandez.
After the season is over, students make suggestions for modifying the layout for next year, ideas which the Rotary Design Committee takes to heart.
“I really can’t thank Ben Lee, Susan Eaton, Randy Hastreiter, and Scott Larson enough for their dedication to our light shows,” said Treankler. “And I know there are several other key volunteers who help construct our objects and see that the configuration is up and running smoothly every night from 5 to 9 p.m. Without their commitment over the years, we can’t do what we do here at the high school.”
Rotary Winter Wonderland kicks off its 13th season on Friday, November 23 and is open 5-9 p.m. every night. Donations of unexpired food items or cash are appreciated.