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Intergenerational Research and Design Team Makes Computers Downright Snuggly
Allison Druin and her creation, Noobie
Allison Druin and creation Noobie, which has an Apple in its belly.
(Photo by Kate Springle)

By Kate Springle
Maryland Newsline
Thursday, May 17, 2001

You might say that walking into the University of Maryland's Human-Computer Interaction Lab is like walking into an elementary school classroom. But if you did, you would be representing only a fraction of reality.

This is not a setting where the children are there to learn from the adults. In fact, most of the time the adults learn from the kids.

In this lab, two things are all-important: Creating new and better technologies that allow children to interact with computers, and researching the process of working with children.

A few rules are enforced: Every person is equally recognized when he or she speaks. No one--not even the "grownups"--dresses up. Anything more than jeans is considered overdressed. 

Technology also sets this room apart. Lots and lots of it. Conventional computers line the walls; other projects in various stages of completion sit on shelves and in corners. Also, evidence of "low-tech" brainstorming sessions, which include sticky notes, hangs from every available flat surface.

The apparent chaos of the room is the product of research spearheaded by 37-year-old Allison Druin.

Druin and Computers -- Friends From the Start

Druin has been working with computers since 1985, just one year after Apple came out with its first graphic interface. At that time, she was the first student at the Rhode Island School of Design to do a senior project on a computer. While others were questioning whether the computer was a valid means of presentation, Druin saw endless possibilities in the nondescript little boxes most people were only using for word processing or games.

By 1995, she had come to realize that in creating computer software or anything else made for children, it just made sense to include them in the process.

So she now includes them in her work: not just as beta testers and guinea pigs, but as designers on her team. She is a faculty member in both the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies and the College of Education at the University of Maryland. 

Many of the projects her team in the Human-Computer Interaction Lab works on are based on helping children to tell stories in new ways. 

A screen in KidPad
A working screen in KidPad
(Photo by Kate Springle)
For example, KidStory, a joint effort with the Swedish Institute of Computer Science and the Royal Institute of Technology (where Druin is a part-time visiting professor), has as one of its components a computer software tool called KidPad. The drawing tool allows children to tell stories chiefly through pictures--enhancing their storytelling abilities while becoming more at home on a computer.

Once a team of children has drawn several scenes in KidPad, they can link them together. If, for example, one child draws the outside of a house, and another the inside of one of the rooms, they can link the two; the software will allow them to “zoom” through a window or door and into the second scene. 

KidPad is available to download for educational purposes at Because of its picture-based interface, it can be used by children as young as 5. 

The Personal Electronic Teller of Stories, a robotic animal, (above), encourages children to expand their storytelling ability by interaction with the creature.  
(Photo by Kate Springle)
Not Your Standard House-PETS

Another storytelling tool, the Personal Electronic Teller of Stories, is aimed at children with disabilities, such as cerebral palsy. To teach the robotic animal how to tell a story, children must repeat an action over and over again, while wearing a sensor that's monitored by the robot. The theory is that for children who have to do physical therapy - for example, lift one arm 20 times - they’re much more likely to do their therapy if there is another motivation. 

"I really like working with the robot," says 7-year-old Cassandra Cosins, one of eight child designers who worked this spring with Druin.

The robot projects are created in conjunction with a start-up company called Anthrotronix and the Maryland Industrial Partnerships, which matches researchers with companies that could benefit from their findings. Anthrotronix expects to develop its own product, incorporating technology developed by Druin's team, says Carl Pompei, management consultant for the College Park-based company. Company officials eventually plan to market this technology to education and training facilities, for therapists and families of children with disabilities.

"We’re developing a robotic toy rehabilitation tool to improve the capabilities of people with disabilities, and the product is controlled by the patient’s body movements and programmed by therapists over the Internet," says Pompei. 

MusicBlocks was created by a company called Neurosmith. Druin's team made a new version, AnimalBlocks (above). 
(Photo courtesy Allison Druin)

Another project created by Druin's intergenerational design team and expected to be distributed commercially is AnimalBlocks. It builds on the work of a product called MusicBlocks from the company  Neurosmith. AnimalBlocks helps children learn about animals by associating certain characteristics (such as an animal's behavior and the sound it makes) with the correct animal. If characteristics are mixed up, AnimalBlocks will make up a name for that animal.

But profit and marketing are not Druin's main motivators. Her team researches not only how to make better technologies for children, but also the process of working with them as partners. Most of the team's projects are funded by groups such as the European Union and the National Science Foundation.

Noobie -- A New Beast

One of Druin’s first big research projects was Noobie. Her master’s assignment at the MIT Media Lab, where she got her master's degree in media arts and sciences, was to answer one question: “If you could create any computer technology in the world to have kids think about animal design, or animals, what would it be?”

Druin’s answer was a large, huggable animal with an Apple in its belly--an Apple computer, of course. Noobie--a fictional furry animal with a fish tail--was designed to help children think about animals and computers in a different way.

(The name comes from Tom Newbie, one of the Jim Henson designers, who helped Druin build the 5-foot-tall creature. "He told me he would not allow me to name the thing after him, so I changed the name, or I changed the spelling,” Druin says.)

Sitting in Noobie’s lap, squeezing his tail, moving his arms or hugging him allowed children to create fictional animals of their own, which would then appear on the computer screen in Noobie’s stomach. Instead of using a standard keyboard and mouse as input devices, children could use parts of the big furry animal.

In Their Own Words...
Seven-year-old Jade Matthews
Eight-year-old Emily Rhodes

It was during the creation process of Noobie that Druin began to realize the importance of children in her research. She used them to test prototypes, and asked for their suggestions.

After a short stint at New York University--just long enough to found a Media Research Lab there--Druin moved on to the University of New Mexico. There, while pursuing her Ph.D. in education, she began to fully realize how integral children were to the design team.

A Brainstorming Session at HCIL
Druin and her team often use brainstorming techniques in the
creation process. (Photo by Kate Springle)
"I realized that, 'Oh my goodness, kids can really help in the development and the change of these technologies from the very beginning,' " Druin says. Since 1995, she says, she has become "more and more married to partnership with children."

Druin’s marriage is also a partnership. Her husband, Ben Bederson, is the computer programming force behind several of her projects. They came to the University of Maryland as a husband and wife team in January 1998. He is director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab and created the zooming software for projects such as Kidpad.

“We find that we have a nice, complementary set of interests and skills,” Bederson says. He and his wife have some projects in which they work together, and others in which they work apart.

“It's a been a nice meeting of the minds,” he says.

The younger minds on the project also realize their impact. “We can make things that can change the future and make it better for other kids,” says Cassandra. “Or we make new computer programs that can be educational.” Like most of her teammates, she feels the work they do is important.

Eight-year-old Emily Rhodes says their work is important because it helps people. “I like a lot when we make things that might help kids,” she says.

Copyright © 2001 University of Maryland College of Journalism

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