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An Unexpected Director

The Media Lab’s wild child grows up … sort of.
February 19, 2008

When Allison Druin, SM ‘87, went on the academic job market in 1997, she interviewed at seven institutions for seven distinctly different positions. With a bachelor of fine arts from the Rhode Island School of Design, a master’s from the Media Lab, a doctorate in education from the University of New Mexico, and a burning interest in technology for children, she says, “I didn’t quite fit anywhere.” The University of Maryland education school thought otherwise and hired her as an assistant professor in 1998.

No Kidding: Allison Druin, SM ’87, directs a lab but still brainstorms ideas for new technologies with her elementary-school-aged “design partners.”

Druin later moved to Maryland’s Human-­Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL), which supports researchers working on community crisis-response grids, mobile computing, and electronic voting systems. She led a team that helped create the International Children’s Digital Library, was appointed to the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (which advises the president and Congress), and was happy to receive tenure. But it took her by surprise when the faculty of the HCIL named her its director in September 2006. The previous director (who happens to be her husband) stepped down to launch a startup in mobile technologies.

“There I was, doing fun stuff with kids,” she says. “Now I’m the director of this crazy lab and probably have to grow up. But I’m one of the few people who came out of the Media Lab who’s actually directing a lab.”

Druin became a student at the Media Lab soon after it was built and recalls that she and others wondered how to make use of the building’s spacious atrium. They decided it was the perfect place to fly the blimps they were using in neural-network research. The blimps went up easily enough, but getting them down proved trickier. The researchers resorted to squirting them with cold water to decrease their buoyancy. Nicholas ­Negroponte, then the Media Lab’s director, “would be having one of his fancy soirées below,” Druin recalls, “and there I was squirting cold water. I made such a mess out of that beautiful, pristine lab they had just opened.”

Indeed, two decades later, Negroponte remembers her–and the blimps–well. ­”Allison was a wild and different student, with three patentable ideas per day,” he says. “She was always on the edge of being too artsy, but so technically provocative that her work was and remains memorable.”

One of the projects Druin and her team have brought to the HCIL is ­Negroponte’s One Laptop per Child Program, for which they are adapting content from the International Children’s Digital Library. Her group also recently partnered with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at the Sesame Workshop to develop print and digital books for children. And Druin has engaged a group of young children and senior citizens–people at the “extremes of life,” as she puts it–to create intergenerational blogs that will allow them to communicate with each other.

During her brief tenure as HCIL director, Druin has encouraged faculty collaborations, including one between a computer scientist and a journalism professor who work on new technologies for citizen journalism. “What’s exciting about this work,” says Druin, “is that these two faculty members would never have even sat in the same meeting.”

Convinced that physical space influences creativity, Druin has moved most of the once spread-out HCIL team to a single 7,000-square-foot area–doubling the lab’s floor space. She’s also doubled the faculty to 26.

“When you work primarily with children, you have a different sense of what’s important,” she says. “You think about things like whether or not to carpet the floor. I want to make a space that’s welcoming and inclusive to more diverse people.”

Despite her new responsibilities, Druin continues her research with children, meeting regularly with her “design partners”–a group of children aged six to nine–to brainstorm about new technologies and then play with them. If you show up to watch one of those sessions wearing a suit, prepare to be scolded. “You can’t be looking like an adult here,” Druin will say. And she’ll make you put on a lime-green T-shirt.