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Technology's Inner Child

Using traditional crafts materials to explore their ideas, elementary-school students help Allison Druin ‘87 design educational technologies that speak to kids.

On a typical Tuesday, Allison Druin, SM ‘87, places pretzels, cheese balls, and water on a table in her lab. Soon, four children arrive and begin snacking. They’re here to help Druin, an assistant professor in computer science at the University of Maryland, brainstorm ideas for a new computer, which Druin tells them should be “the coolest, most amazing machine in the entire universe.” She hauls out “bags of stuff”—plastic grocery sacks filled with craft materials—and the kids begin designing machines with pipe cleaners, cotton balls, and colored paper.

Druin leads sessions like this one almost daily as she works to create technologies that are more accessible to children. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, she researches ways to change technology to better support educational experiences in schools. She has also led the development of the world’s largest free online library for kids. With more than 500 books, the International Children’s Digital Library has been visited by nearly one million children and adults in more than 200 countries. In addition, Druin serves as a White House-appointed commissioner with the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, an agency that advises the president and Congress on policy matters relating to libraries and information science.

“My first love has always been focusing on children and the technologies we can build with them,” Druin says. She pursued that passion as a master’s student in the Media Lab, where she took a seminar class with Alan Kay, who was then creating software environments in which children could manipulate the movements of digital animals on a screen. Before long she was interacting with members of the Jim Henson Company’s Muppet Workshop and experimenting with yards of felt and fur, along with hardware and software. The result was a thesis project called Noobie, a giant, Muppet-like monster with a computer screen in its belly. It guards her College Park, MD, lab.

In 1999, Druin and Brewster Kahle ‘82, founder of the Internet Archive, began discussing ideas for a Web-based children’s library. Now two years old, the International Children’s Digital Library (www.icdlbooks.org) houses books in 27 languages. Through stories, it introduces kids to their counterparts in other countries and to universal ideas, in the hope of promoting open-mindedness. Children use the library for recreation, but also for homework. Adults use it to teach English as a second language, supplement school libraries, and preview books for purchase.

But the library is more than just a static resource. “It also is a research platform for us to understand better how children want to access their information,” Druin says. Kids in five countries work with adult researchers to improve the system. One of the library’s search mechanisms, which relies on clicks instead of keywords, is among their contributions. It allows children to organize books into categories that matter to them: the colors of their covers, the way the books make them feel, the types of characters in the books, or the world region in which the books originated. Each time a child clicks on an image representing a category, that category is added to the search string. For ex­ample, children can see all the red books about animals simply by clicking on the color and animal icons.

Druin garners this type of detailed information about children’s technological habits firsthand. Currently, six 7- to 11-year-olds come to her lab every Tuesday and Thursday. In addition, Druin’s lab staff works with groups of five- to six-year-olds twice a week in a preschool on campus. Thus far, the kids have helped develop the digital library, conceptualize backpacks of the future, design tomorrow’s iPods, and enhance cell phones.

During work sessions, Druin listens closely to the children and openly discusses things such as project funding, conference talks, and research deadlines. She treats the children as equals. “They are our partners in brainstorming, in sketching ideas, in evaluating ideas, and in thinking about design directions,” she says. Hilary Hutchinson, a PhD candidate and research assistant in the lab, says Druin leads most of the sessions with ease. “She’s very adaptable,” Hutchinson says. “You have to be when you’re working with kids.”

Druin’s adaptability also shows in her work on the White House commission, where she focuses on improving school libraries. Beth Fitzsimmons, chair of the commission, says Druin has a “can do” approach to life. She says that when a project gets changed midway through, Druin just laughs and says, “Sure, we can do that.”

Back in the lab, nine-year-old Zoe has declared that the computer the kids are working on needs a cool case. Druin grabs extra paper and helps Zoe start designing it. It’s probably not how most adults would begin a design project, but that’s the point. As Fitzsimmons says, “She’s developing technology through the eyes of children. I think that’s pretty special.” The kids think so too. The next time Druin proposes a new project, they’ll be exclaiming “Cool!” and reaching for their “bags of stuff” to get to work.

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