Computer science students, faculty program trees of dancing lights

At light up tree of lights is at the entrance to Mercer Village

The Computer Science Department is helping spread holiday cheer on Mercer University’s Macon campus. 

Students and faculty in the department have erected two Christmas trees out of strands of LED lights and programmed them to change colors using different effects. 

The first tree, located on the overhang of the parking lot entrance to Willet Science Center, went up at the end of October. The second was installed in November as part of the annual Light More Homes Christmas Celebration, which relocated to Mercer Village this year and benefits Macon Area Habitat for Humanity

From left, Dr. Bob Allen; students Andy Davis, Jeremiah Pulliam, Alex Donnelly, Rabun Leicht, Trevor Langill, Kyra Idris, Georgios Iakovidis, Reilly Holbel; and Computer Systems Manager Jesse Sowell stand with the Computer Science Department tree they put up in Mercer Village. Photo courtesy of Dr. Bob Allen

“You can program anything you want,” said Dr. Bob Allen, professor and chair of the Computer Science Department

Each tree is made of 1,500 lights, and each light is individually programmed using Python, a programming language. Strands of LED light are anchored to a hoop at the base and come together at the top.  

The Willet tree is about 30 feet tall, and the Mercer Village tree, which surrounds a lamppost, is about 10 feet tall. They’re each synced to a small computer called a Raspberry Pi, which controls the lights. 

Work on the trees first started in the Creativity Lab, a makerspace located in Willet. The lab, which is a collaborative space where students can test and explore ideas, has equipment such as 3D printers, a Twitch streaming station, Raspberry Pi computers and other “really geeky stuff,” Dr. Allen said. 

Integral to this project, however, was the lab’s 32-square-foot panel of programmable LED lights, where students could practice coding.  

The Computer Science Department tree is at the entrance of Mercer Village.

“LED lights give students quick feedback on their code,” Dr. Allen said. “You write the code, and you see the results.” 

Colton Steinbeck, a senior majoring in computer science and coordinator of the Creativity Lab, helped Dr. Allen design the Willet tree and then apply that same concept to the one in Mercer Village. 

Initially, “it was a bit challenging to think about how many lights we were going to need, how we would program them and how we were going to get them on the roof,” he said of the Willet tree.  

But with support from other students in the Creativity Lab, they were able to pull it off. And once they had the code for the Willet lights, it wasn’t hard to scale it for the Mercer Village project, he said. 

Dr. Allen said he already has some ideas to work on for next year, such as making the tree in Mercer Village interactive.  

“I think it’d be fun to have the kids be able to talk to the tree, and it changes,” he said. “Say ‘green’ and the tree turns green.” 

Kyra Idris, a junior double majoring in information science and technology and cybersecurity, said she had a lot of fun working on the project. 

“The Mercer Village tree was definitely the one we all loved. It’s like a digital Christmas tree,” she said. “Once we finished it up, it just looked so nice. 

“Every time I drive past it, I think, ‘Wow! We did that!’” 

Students and faculty in the Computer Science Department erected a tree made of LED lights on top of the entrance to Willet Science Center. Photo courtesy of Dr. Bob Allen


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