Meet the Media Lab’s New Learning Innovation Fellows

Thirty years ago, Media Lab founding faculty member Seymour Papert laid the foundation for a new theory of learning through construction. He created digital tools for children to be designers and creators, rather than just consumers of content. He understood that learning happens best when people are actively constructing knowledge through experimentation and the design of sharable objects. To this date, we continue to organize our graduate program at the Media Lab around similar principles of creative learning.

In order to share this particular approach to learning with the world, the Media Lab created the ML Learning Initiative, working with an incredible group of collaborators, including New Profit, the Joyce Foundation, Siegel Family Endowment, and the LEGO Foundation.

Today, the ML Learning Initiative is thrilled to announce our inaugural cohort of Media Lab Learning Innovation fellows for the 2016–2017 academic year.

This fellowship supports a community of graduate student researchers who are developing new technologies to cultivate creative learning in a variety of contexts — from early learning in public libraries to workforce development for adults. Our fellows represent seven different research groups from across the Media Lab, each bringing their own unique perspective and expertise.

The 2016–2017 Learning Innovation Fellows

Akito van Troyer

Research Group: Opera of the Future

Akito designs and implements creative learning environments where all subjects are learned through music. In particular, he builds tools that encourage learners to develop their mathematical, scientific, and engineering skills through music listening, composition, and performance. Akito designs meta-musical instruments that lead music learners to create their own musical instruments. These instruments are capable of turning our environments into always-renewed, always-magical musical instruments and materials for composition. They also assist the listening experience by enabling users to touch electronic music with their own hands.

“I’m currently teaching a class at Colorado College, called ‘Introduction to Music Technology.’ I am the instructor but at the same time I’m learning a great deal from this experience via class preparation and through my interaction with students.”

Anneli Hershman

Research Group: Social Machines

Anneli develops child­-driven and machine­-guided technologies that empower children to share their voices with others, while teaching important literacy skills and fostering a love of reading and writing. At the MIT Media Lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines, she is a team member of Playful Words. This project starts with the belief that literacy is an inherently social activity that is best learned within a supportive community network comprised of peers, families, and teachers. Anneli’s particular interest is in storytelling and how it can motivate young learners and families by providing self­-expressive, socially collaborative, and playful literacy learning opportunities. She has had a lot of experience in the field of education, working as a therapist, preschool teacher, literacy instructor, tutor, researcher, and online literacy curriculum designer.

“I am currently learning how to design by using prototyping softwares and by building physical prototypes. I am also learning how to speak Spanish (estoy aprendiendo hablar español) and I am also constantly in the kitchen learning new culinary techniques and exploring new cuisines! For more about me, you can view my portfolio.”

Christian David Vázquez Machado

Research Group: Fluid Interfaces

Christian is passionate about the opportunities that augmented reality (AR) technologies can bring to language learning through highly contextual, mixed-reality supplements. He’s developing an application that enables situated learning by allowing a remote peer to annotate images streamed from a head-mounted display or phone, essentially “subtitling” the learner’s environment to aid in vocabulary acquisition. The system pairs the learner with someone who can help them learn English, and using a phone or a head-mounted display, the learner shares visual pictures or video of their current environment in real-time with their peer. The peer labels objects and scenes in that environment in real-time in written and spoken English. The system enables real-­time learning that is contextual and supported by remote peers.

“I’m currently learning how to develop applications on the Unity game engine for the HoloLens platform. I’m planning to take advantage of the device’s spatial awareness to provide just-in-time information that can help people learn in the wild. I’m also learning some Japanese for an upcoming trip to Japan!”

Jacqueline Kory Westlund

Research Group: Personal Robots

Jacqueline Kory Westlund develops social robotic learning companions to support young children’s language learning and social and emotional development. She asks questions about how to create more effective robotic learning companions, how children understand social robots, how context and framing affect child-robot interactions, and the ethics of using robots in children’s lives. In recent work, Jacqueline has focused on developing creative and playful activities around storytelling, in which the robots engage preschool children as peers, so that both tell stories to each other.

“I’m currently delving into Python’s unit-testing framework, so I can properly test a child-robot game that I’m developing for a project with my lab’s collaborators on socially assistive robotics. Find out more about me here, if you’re curious.”

Kim Smith

Research Group: Social Computing

Kim designs new, tactile computer science materials for early childhood education as part of the Wildflower Montessori Project. Today, we can imagine new materials that live within, and extend, the Montessori pedagogy to address new proficiencies and emerging fields, like computer science. However, computer science is often not included in early childhood and elementary curricula, and when it is, the emphasis tends to be on the computer as an interface, rather than the computer as a computational tool to think with.

“I’m currently learning how to make tasty meals in a crockpot!”

Inspired by the simplicity and aesthetics of traditional Montessori education, Kim is designing new materials that aim to break down the fundamentals of computation into a set of discrete and tangible concepts that are expressed in hands-on, tactile ways.

Kreg Hanning

Research Group: Lifelong Kindergarten

Kreg builds tools that bridge the physical and digital worlds, enabling kids to write computer programs that access information from sensors and control lights, motors, and sounds.

“I’m currently exploring the intersection between digital and physical computing. Through the use of Arduino products, electronic components, copper tape, and Scratch, I’m learning about how to create more intuitive systems for young learners to be creative and to express themselves in the physical world.”

As a member of the Scratch team, Kreg develops systems that can promote creativity and expression. These types of physical-digital projects are engaging to a wide diversity of children, and they also help kids gain a deeper understanding of the process of design (since they have the opportunity to design with both physical and digital media). Before joining the Media Lab, Kreg worked to launch computer programming in Boston public schools, both during the school day and in after-school clubs. He is also an active contributor to the ScratchX extensions community.

Kristy Johnson

Research Group: Affective Computing

Kristy Johnson earned her BS and MS in physics, with research in astronomy, plasma physics, and superfluid helium fluid dynamics. Her career then took an abrupt shift when her son was born with an extremely rare genetic disorder involving global developmental delays and autism, prompting her to turn her research pursuits toward the fields of cognitive neuroscience and affective, educational technology. Now, as a PhD student in the Affective Computing group, she studies motivation-driven learning as a mechanism to understand and enhance cognition, regulation, and engagement — particularly for individuals with complex developmental needs. Her goal is to build responsive, customizable tools that empower individuals to learn and interact with their world in ways previously considered impossible.

“I’m currently learning how to be a mom to two kids (#2 arrived in June!) and all the amazing, sometimes challenging, experiences that come along with that. I’m also learning American Sign Language (ASL) as well as how to found and fund clubs at MIT. We just launched a new ASA-recognized student club, the ASL & Deaf Culture club, and now offer three ASL classes — free to the MIT community — taught right here at the Media Lab!”

More about the Media Lab Learning Initiative

The Media Lab Learning Initiative brings the collective creativity of the Media Lab to bear on the future of learning. It propagates our unique approach to learning by designing new tools, technologies, and experiences that cultivate creativity and collaboration.

If you’d like to stay up-to-date on the work and projects of the fellows and the ML Learning Initiative, join our mailing list or visit our website.

ML Learning Collaborators

Joyce Foundation — The Joyce Foundation works with grantee partners to develop and advance policy reforms that promise to improve quality of life, promote community vitality, and strive for a fair society. Our grant-making is driven by a belief that communities are stronger when they share benefits broadly among their people.

New Profit — New Profit is a national nonprofit venture philanthropy fund. Its mission is to break down the barriers that stand between people and opportunity in the United States. New Profit works with visionary entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and other partners to upend the status quo and transform the way the US educates its children, propels people towards social and financial stability, and creates healthy communities.

Siegel Family Endowment — Siegel Family Endowment seeks to help understand and shape learning in order to prepare the world for rapid digital transformation. We collaborate with partners who use technology to create meaningful, research-based learning experiences.

LEGO Foundation — The LEGO Foundation aims to build a future where learning through play empowers children to become creative, engaged, lifelong learners. The foundation’s work is about challenging the status quo by re-defining play and re-imagining learning. The foundation’s focus is on children aged 0–12, with a special emphasis on early childhood where children develop most rapidly, both physically and mentally.


Authors: Katherine McConachie and Philipp Schmidt, ML Learning Initiative