Beyond Black Boxes:
Bringing Transparency and Aesthetics
Back to Scientific Instruments

Project funded by the National Science Foundation (1997-1999)

Principal Investigators
Mitchel Resnick, Media Laboratory, MIT
Robert Berg, Department of Physics, Wellesley College
Michael Eisenberg, Department of Computer Science, University of Colorado
Sherry Turkle, Program in Science, Technology, and Society, MIT

Technical Director
Fred Martin, Media Laboratory, MIT

"Science, whatever be its ultimate developments, has its origin in techniques, in arts and crafts.... Science arises in contact with things, it is dependent on the evidence of the senses, and however far it seems to move from them, must always come back to them."

— B. Farrington, Greek Science [1949]


Science is popularly regarded as a purely "cognitive" activity—a discipline of the mind. But there is also a more physical and tactile tradition in science—a tradition in which scientists do not merely measure and theorize but also construct the instruments needed to do so. Indeed, many of the most important advances in scientific history were based on a combination of science, engineering, and design. By building their own instruments (and understanding the capabilities and limitations of those instruments), scientists gain deeper insights into the nature of the phenomena under investigation.

One element of this instrument-building tradition is a design philosophy that emphasizes elegance and beauty in the material objects of scientific work. One can still witness this aesthetic tradition in museums and archives, in the writings, drawings, and surviving instruments of an earlier era of scientists. Both Pascal and Leibniz (for example) wrote with an undisguised affection of the designs of their respective calculating machines; and the 19th-century "analytical engine" of Charles Babbage, as reconstructed in the Science Museum in London, exhibits a solid mechanical beauty. The timepieces, optical instruments, navigational devices, and glassware of eighteenth and nineteenth century researchers often strike the modern viewer as both functional and eye-pleasing; even the historical tradition of scientific illustration (as exemplified in the drawings of Audubon) combines precision and beauty.

The instrument-building and aesthetic traditions of science have arguably been attenuated in recent years—and, in part, for good reason. Science is no longer the province of the individual aristocrat, and the design of scientific instrumentation has increasingly become (like much else in this century) a matter of mass production. While the democratization of science is welcome, the decline of "scientific craftsmanship" is a more problematic phenomenon: the laboratory may, sadly, have become a less beautiful setting in which to work, and a less magical setting to the eye of the student and apprentice. The modern-day student of science is less likely to feel the sense of wonder depicted by the novelist Sinclair Lewis [1925] in his portrait of the young Arrowsmith:

It was the central room of the three occupied by Doc Vickerson... This central room was at once business office, consultation-room, living-room, poker den, and warehouse.... Against a brown plaster wall was a cabinet of zoological collections and medical curiosities, and beside it the most dreadful and fascinating object known to the boy-world of Elk Mills—a skeleton with one gaunt gold tooth... The wild raggedness of the room was the soul and symbol of Doc Vickerson; it was more exciting than the flat-faced stack of shoe-boxes in the New York Bazaar; it was the lure to questioning and adventure for Martin Arrowsmith. [pp. 6-7]

Both the power and the problem with modern scientific instrumentation is reflected in the term "black box" that is commonly used to describe the equipment. Today's black-box instruments are highly effective in making measurements and collecting data—enabling even novices to perform advanced scientific experiments. But, at the same time, these black boxes are "opaque" (in that their inner workings are often hidden and thus poorly understood by their users) and they are bland in appearance (making it difficult for users to feel a sense of personal connection with scientific activity).

Electronics and computational technologies have accelerated this trend, filling science laboratories and classrooms with ever more opaque black boxes. Whereas a previous generation of scientists became hooked on scientific investigation by taking apart their radios, today's children see little that they can understand when they open up their radios and other modern electronic devices. As James Gleick [1992] writes in his biography of Richard Feynman:

Eventually the art went out of radio tinkering. Children forgot the pleasures of opening and eviscerating their parents' old Kadettes and Clubs. Solid electronic blocks replaced the radio set's messy innards—so where once you could learn by tugging at soldered wires and staring into the orange glow of the vacuum tubes, eventually nothing remained but featureless ready-made chips, the old circuits compressed a thousandfold or more. The transistor, a microscopic quirk of silicon, supplanted the reliably breakable tube, and so the world lost a well-used path into science.

Paradoxically, the same electronics technologies that have contributed to the black-boxing of science can also be used to reintroduce a vigorously creative and aesthetic dimension into the design of scientific instrumentation—particularly in the context of science education. In this project, we propose to develop computational tools and project materials that allow children (primarily at the middle-school and high-school levels) to create their own scientific instruments. In particular, we propose to develop a family of tiny, fully-programmable computational devices, called "Crickets," that students can embed in (and connect to) everyday objects. Cricket technology aims to use computation not to replace the physical but to augment the physical. Crickets can control motors and lights, receive information from sensors, and communicate with one another via infrared light. By using Crickets to build their own scientific instruments, we expect students will be able to engage in more meaningful and motivating science-inquiry activities.

For example, one group of students might use Crickets to build an "active hamster cage" that monitors and responds to the activity of a pet hamster. Another group might create a "wearable instrument" that analyzes the relationship between a person's heartbeat and their level of exertion throughout a day. Other students might build an autonomous submarine, equipped with a Cricket and sensors, to investigate pollution levels at different depths and locations in a nearby lake or harbor. In all of these activities, students open up the black box of scientific instrumentation, learning to view scientific instruments not as (mysterious and remote) productions of (likewise mysterious and remote) factories, but rather as personalized objects of design.

Learning Objectives

The National Research Council (NRC), in its influential National Science Education Standards [1996], places special emphasis on the idea of "science as inquiry," arguing that "inquiry is central to science learning" [p. 2]. Thus, there is a critical need to develop new and better ways to help children become engaged in inquiry-rich experiences.

Our hypothesis in this project is that the activity of designing scientific instruments provides a powerful way for children to become meaningfully involved in scientific inquiry. The NRC Standards list "using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data" as an important component of inquiry [p. 23]. We agree, but we add that it is even more important for students to design their own tools (not just "use" pre-existing tools). There are several reasons:

Motivation. Students are more likely to feel a sense of personal investment in a scientific investigation if they design the scientific instruments themselves—particularly, if they add their own aesthetic touches to the instruments. Even more, for many students, designing their own instruments may lend an entirely new dimension to scientific activity—a dimension of creative self-expression that is often perceived as missing in science education (in contrast to education in other disciplines such as art and music [Csikszentmihalyi et al., pp. 105-6]).

Extending the space of possibilities. When students design their own scientific investigations (as we hope they would), they will quite likely find that standard scientific instruments are not always well-suited to the tasks. By creating their own instruments, students are less constrained in their investigations. Student-created instruments can thus serve as spurs to the imagination, prompting students to see all sorts of day-to-day activities as possible subjects of both formal and informal scientific investigation.

Developing critical capacity. Too often, students accept the readings of scientific instruments without question. When students design their own instruments (and thus understand the inner workings of the instruments), they should as a result develop a healthy skepticism about the readings—and a more subtle understanding of the nature of scientific information and knowledge.

Making connections to underlying concepts. To design their own scientific instruments, students need to figure out what things to measure and how to measure them. In the process (and in contrast to students simply performing "black box" measurements), they develop a deeper understanding of the scientific concepts underlying the investigation. If students create a "wearable thermometer," for example, they naturally encounter (and make use of) the concepts of thermal conductivity and heat capacity.

Understanding the relationship between science and technology. The NRC Standards argue that "the need to answer questions in the natural world drives the development of technological products" [p. 24], but that "few students understand that technology influences science" [p. 191]. By designing their own scientific instruments, students gain firsthand experience in the ways that technology design can both serve and inspire scientific investigation.

Overall, we believe that students can come to view the creation of scientific instrumentation as a craft that rewards dedication and precision but simultaneously encourages a spirit of creativity, exuberance, humor, stylishness, and personal expression. By creating their own customized instruments (and programming how they should function), students can be given the opportunity to experience those instruments as "transparent" objects—i.e., objects whose purpose and design are rendered understandable. Our hope is that students would become more likely to "look inside" other technological artifacts in the world around them, developing a greater interest in (and appreciation for) the mechanisms that underlie those artifacts.

Moreover, we believe that with the appropriate computational tools for developing their own instruments, students can, over time, develop a sense of confidence and self-empowerment; they can view scientific investigation as a process in which they can take part, day-to-day, creatively and pleasurably. One of our major goals is for students to become more "fluent" in creating their own scientific investigations—and their own instruments to use in those investigations. We will see our project as very successful if students, after participating in our project, are more likely and more able to create new tools (even very simple tools) for exploring phenomena in their everyday lives.

Technology Development

New technology is needed to support students in the activity of designing and building their own scientific instruments. As part of this project, we will develop a new family of tiny computational devices called Crickets. The Crickets are somewhat similar to the "programmable LEGO bricks" previously developed at the MIT Media Lab [Martin, 1994; Sargent et al., 1996], but they are much smaller and lighter (the current prototype is roughly the size of a 9-volt battery), and they have enhanced communications capabilities. Crickets can control motors, receive information from sensors, and communicate with one another (and other electronic devices) via infrared communications.

Cricket prototype, with LEGO figure shown for scale

Most important, the Crickets are fully programmable: students can write and download computer programs into the Crickets from a desktop computer. We will extend our previous development of Logo-based programming environments, with a goal of making it even easier for students to write (and understand) control- and sensing-oriented computer programs. At the same time, we will make these programming tools compatible with graphing and analysis software "components," so that students can easily investigate trends and patterns in the data that they collect with their Crickets.

The small size of the Crickets opens up new types of applications. Students can embed Crickets inside everyday objects—for example, a Cricket with an accelerometer may be embedded inside a ball, or a Cricket and temperature sensor may be woven into the fabric of a shirt. The low cost (less than $20 for the current prototype) and communication capabilities of the Crickets make it possible to imagine new applications involving dozens of Crickets interacting with one another.

In our technology development, we plan to leverage ongoing research in the Media Lab's "Things That Think" initiative—a new lab-wide project that aims to develop new ways to build computational capabilities into everyday objects (such as furniture, clothing, and toys).

We believe that computational technologies (such as the Crickets) are particularly appropriate for bringing aesthetics considerations back to scientific instruments, since they enable a separation of the form of a tool from its function. In the past, the function of a tool was directly tied to its physical form. For example, the function of a hammer is closely linked to its shape and materials. With computational technology, there is a loosening of the binding between form and function. The software in a Cricket can play a larger role in determining the tool's function than the tool's physical shape or materials. No longer held hostage to functional constraints, the forms of objects can now be used specifically for communication and expression.

Sample Projects

In this section, we outline several ideas for using Crickets to create personalized (and even beautiful) scientific instruments. For the purposes of this document, we focus on just a few categories of activities and instruments: zoological instruments, wearable instruments, and underwater instruments. It should be noted, however, that these categories are only illustrations of the broad varieties of activities that we would eventually like to support.

Zoological Instruments

On the Wellesley College campus, free-living house finches build their nests inside ornate street lamps. To study these birds, a biology professor set up a video camera to continuously record the bird activity at the tops of several lampposts. But once the video was taken, the researcher needed to search through hours and hours of video to find a few minutes of relevant activity. We imagine school children using Cricket technology to make new, superior instruments for this type of investigation.

A group of students could place a Cricket in a bird feeder and program the Cricket to send an infrared signal to a video camera (telling the camera to turn on) whenever it detected the presence of a bird. There are several aspects to this investigation. First, the students would need to decide what type of sensors to use to detect the presence of birds. Once the system was working, the students could investigate how the structure of the bird feeder (e.g., the size and placement of the hole, the type of bird seed, the color of the feeder, its height above ground and proximity to vegetation) influenced the types of birds that used the feeder and their activities. Different groups in the class could build different types of bird feeders (each with their own built-in Crickets) and then compare results. Students might put sensors on the perch of the bird feeder and study how different types of birds create different swinging patterns on the perch. With this information, they might be able to identify bird types from sensor data alone, without any video camera. That would allow more widespread investigations, with students placing dozens of Cricket-equipped bird feeders in remote locations.

Similar investigations are possible with other animals. Students could attach sensors and Crickets to a hamster cage to monitor the activity of hamsters over the course of a day. (In a preliminary investigation, a local school teacher found that her hamster, which sat inactive most of the day, ran nearly a quarter mile on its treadmill in two-hour bursts each night.) Other possibilities: students might attach Crickets to a dog's collar to monitor the dog's activity during the day; they could embed a Cricket inside of a dog's toy and study how the toy is used during the day; they could use Crickets to study the behavior of ants in an ant farm, then create computer-based simulations to better understand how the individual ant actions give rise to colony-level patterns.

All of these sample activities serve to highlight an important point about the way in which the design of scientific instrumentation is altered by the advent of new technology such as Crickets. As day-to-day objects become enriched by computational media, the form and aesthetics of those objects necessarily influence the design of their associated scientific instruments. Consider, for instance, the bird feeder example: the style and appearance of a bird feeder are important—both for the people who observe it and the birds who use it. As bird feeders are converted into scientific instruments, then, it is important to keep aesthetics in mind, so as not to disrupt the traditional functions of the feeder. The same basic observation applies to our other examples: when an object such as a hamster's toy, or dog's collar, doubles as a scientific instrument, it must be designed with an eye toward both its "scientific" and "day-to-day" roles. Thus, students who create Cricket-augmented instruments for such projects must, over time, learn to think both as creative scientists and as creative designers.

Wearable Instruments

Because Crickets are light enough to be woven into fabric (or attached externally to objects of clothing), students may use them to create wearable devices—in effect, to blend the intellectual interest of scientific instrumentation with the personal pleasure of making a "fashion statement." One possibility would be to use Crickets as colorful meteorological instruments: a cricket-augmented bracelet, for instance, could cause a series of coded lights to glow on the wearer's wrist to reflect the ambient temperature. Similarly, a classroom of students could design their own hats, gloves, or kneepads with which to take measurements through the day of air pressure, humidity, or temperature. Pursuing these ideas a bit further, we envision classroom activities in which students take part as "walking laboratories" of various sorts: one student, for instance, could be designated the "class thermometer" for the day, recording a series of temperature measurements that could later be read back into the class computer and analyzed. An interesting feature of such a project could well be the notion of "reading a story" into the data: by interpreting a series of ambient temperature readings taken by a classmate over the course of a day, students would need to take into account both global meteorological features (the overall pattern of temperature change in a given location) and their classmate's individual activity (e.g., whether she spent a certain portion of the days indoors, or in a shaded location, or perhaps in an air-conditioned room).

Cricket-augmented clothing could be used to take other sorts of measurements as well. An accelerometer placed in a student's sneakers could be used to take a rough measurement of the wearer's running speed; or it could be used to measure the student's acceleration at the outset of a jump (and hence to get an estimate of how high the wearer is able to get off the ground). Such projects suggest the use of wearable devices as means for measuring aspects of one's own body and its functioning (pulse rate and body temperature are two other measurements that naturally come to mind). Likewise, "ambient" measurements need not be strictly meteorological: a Cricket-based sound sensor could be used to measure the amplitude of ambient noise and to signal the student when she is in an unusually loud (or quiet!) environment.

These examples illustrate the possibilities of employing Cricket-equipped clothing for use by individual students; but because Crickets can communicate with one another (over short distances) via infrared signaling, one can envision group projects as well. For instance, students could take part in "participatory simulations," in which their own programmable clothing sends a message of some kind to the instrument carried by another student. For example, one could imagine a "virus-spreading" simulation in which Crickets can signal one another at close range, passing along a flag that indicates "infection"; in this way, a few students whose wearable Crickets are infected with the virtual "virus" may, over time, meet up with "uninfected" students to whom the virus signal is communicated. Naturally, more complex variations on this theme would allow students to investigate the effects of (e.g.) vaccination on the disease-spreading process; or the same type of participatory simulation could be used to study other phenomena (such as the spreading of rumors).

The notion of a "wearable instrument" can perhaps be discerned in current youth culture, in the popularity of "mood rings" or sneakers equipped with embedded LED's. In this sense, our notion of Cricket-augmented clothing may be seen as compatible with an (admittedly, to adult eyes, often incomprehensible) element of existing student culture; but unlike these popular (and basically contentless) displays, Cricket-augmented clothes are designed to convey and record information. Perhaps more importantly, however, a "wearable instrument" is not a mere novelty: it allows measurements to be taken over a wide range of environments and over long periods of time, and it encourages students to blend small, subtle, and personally meaningful acts of scientific interest into their day-to-day activity.

Underwater Instruments

Every afternoon, youth from inner-city Boston neighborhoods gather at the Computer Clubhouse, an after-school learning center [Resnick & Rusk, in press]. The Clubhouse overlooks Fort Point channel, part of historic Boston Harbor. Over the years the harbor has played a central role in the lives of the people of the Boston area. Recently, efforts to clean up the harbor have been at the focus of local and even national attention.

Kids at the Clubhouse could build Cricket-powered submarines to explore Fort Point channel, monitoring pollution levels and conducting other oceanographic studies. These underwater vehicles might be designed scoop up samples from the harbor floor, or take water samples at various depths. They could monitor temperature gradients, water clarity, salinity, and purity. They could attempt to answer questions such as: What does the "stuff" at the bottom of the ocean look like at different locations? How do water conditions vary by depth and location? How do these results change with the daily tides, after a rainstorm, or over the course of the seasons?

These activities would build on the success of other school-based environmental monitoring projects (such as TERC's Global Lab project [Berenfeld, 1994] and University of Michigan's stream ecology project [Jackson et al., in press]), offering a number of important improvements:

• In this project, students would not only gather and analyze data, but also design and build the means of acquiring the data (the submarine with Cricket and motors and sensors) and decide on which data to gather. The build-it-yourself aspect of the project (and the fact that students are likely to really care about the submarines that they build) leads to a high level of motivation and engagement.

• In this project, science and technology interact in two ways: Students not only use technological instruments to make scientific measurements (as they do in all monitoring projects), they also use scientific knowledge to build the technological instruments. In this way, students learn scientific concepts in a meaningful and motivating context. For example: To build a navigational system for their submarine, students might need to use the fact that water pressure varies linearly with depth.

• The low cost of Cricket-based instruments dramatically changes the types of investigations that are possible. Students can put Cricket-based instruments "at risk," placing them in dangerous environments like Boston Harbor, without worrying whether a few of them get lost or damaged. This example is suggestive of a whole new range of science activities that become feasible as computers become very cheap, mobile, and ubiquitous.

This project will be done in collaboration with researchers in MIT's Department of Ocean Engineering whose work involves the design of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). This connection helps highlight how this project relates to the work of professional scientists. The AUVs that the kids build are not just toys; they are similar to the instruments scientists use in studying ocean environments.

Other Instruments

These three project categories are merely representative of a variety of categories that we would eventually like to explore. Other possible project categories include: the creation of homemade musical and acoustical instruments; the design of Cricket-augmented physics toys and science kits; and the development of "smart classrooms" through the use of Cricket-based devices embedded within the classroom furniture (such devices could, for instance, be used to count the number of people in the room and thereby control the room's lighting or temperature).

Beyond MBL

These activities bear a resemblance to traditional microcomputer-based lab (MBL) activities [Tinker, in press], but they differ along several important dimensions:

Constructionist approach. In most MBL activities, students use pre-built instruments—and often in pre-designed experiments. In our proposed activities, students will construct and program the instruments that they use—and design their own experiments. We believe that this "constructionist" approach [Papert, 1993] will deepen students' understanding of the scientific concepts involved in the activities. (This echoes Larkin and Chabay's [1989] dictum for science education, to "let most instruction occur through active work on tasks" [p. 161]; similarly, Berger [1994], in his compelling book on the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, observes that "too many schools are satisfied to spend their time imparting the standard biology and chemistry syllabi. Research, though, is the fun part of science, the part that allows for cunning and wonder" [p. 235].)

Combine sensing with control. Most MBL activities involve collecting and analyzing data from sensors. In our Cricket-based activities, students can use sensor data to control the actions of motors, lights, and other electronic devices.

Programmability. The instruments created in these activities will be fully programmable, so that students can more easily modify, customize, and extend the functionality of the instruments.

Mobility. The small size of the Crickets makes it possible for students to create scientific instruments that they can carry with them, distribute in remote locations, or even embed inside other objects.

"Daylong Learning". Many traditional MBL activities involve experiments that, to students, seem unmotivated and decontextualized. By contrast, we hope to help students develop investigations that draw on their everyday activities and which, in many cases, involve data collection over extended periods of time. The goal is to shift away from classroom learning to "daylong learning". We believe that the Cricket's small size (along with its ability to store data collected over time) will facilitate this shift.

Aesthetics of design. Traditional MBL activities pay no attention to the aesthetics of the instrumentation, or the ways in which instruments are integrated into their surroundings. As scientific investigations extend over longer periods of time and connect to everyday activities, aesthetics become increasingly important.

Test Sites

We will test our new technologies and activities in both the Boston and Boulder areas. Our plan is to work at a diverse collection of educational settings, including not only traditional school classrooms, but also an after-school learning center for inner-city youth and a vocational-technology high school. We believe that we will learn different things at different settings. Moreover, we expect that our activities might prove particularly effective at non-traditional settings. In our previous research with LEGO/Logo technology [e.g., Resnick, 1993; Martin, 1994], we found that construction-oriented activities provided a particularly motivating and meaningful path to science/engineering learning for students who are traditionally alienated from classroom science activities. We expect similar results with our new Cricket-based activities, and we are particularly interested in exploring how these types of activities could be used within school-to-work transition programs.

Our overall plan is to focus on in-depth studies and evaluation at a few test sites, rather than widespread dissemination to a large number of sites. (Our plan is to have technologies and activities ready for widespread dissemination by the end of the three-year project.) Initial pilot studies will take place at informal-science settings. In Boston, we will work at the Computer Clubhouse, an after-school center for youth (ages 10-16) from under-served communities (co-founded by members of our research team). Many of the participants at the Clubhouse have been unsuccessful in traditional academic settings. Additional pilot studies will take place in workshops at the Collage Children's Museum in Boulder, here focusing on work with younger (elementary-school-aged) children. Based on results from the pilot studies, we will organize studies in middle-school classrooms in the Boulder area, and at a vocational-technology high school in the Boston area. We will work closely with teachers at these sites, including intensive workshops during the summers.


There will be three primary aspects of our evaluation effort: (1) evaluation of the technology; (2) evaluation of student learning; and (3) evaluation of our underlying theoretical framework. In all cases, we will rely primarily on in-depth case studies of participating children. Over the years, we have found that the most revealing studies are those in which we closely follow a small sample of individual students over a period of weeks or months (or even years). This approach works best at local sites, where we can follow students in person (interviews, observations, and other interactions).

Evaluation of the technology. Before considering the educational value of our Cricket-based activities, we need to consider the basic performance of the Cricket technology. Does it perform as expected? Does it meet its technical objectives? Is it buggy, confusing, or unreliable? We will work closely with initial users to evaluate system performance, and revise as necessary.

Evaluation of student learning. In assessing student learning, we will primarily examine children's engagement in "science as inquiry." As described earlier in the Learning Objectives section, we believe that the activity of designing scientific instruments provides a powerful way for children to become meaningfully involved in scientific inquiry. We listed five reasons why that might be the case: (a) motivation; (b) extending the space of possibilities; (c) developing critical capacity; (d) making connections to underlying concepts; (e) understanding the relationship between science and technology. In our case studies of student participants, we will evaluate student learning along each of these five dimensions.

More broadly, we will evaluate the extent to which students develop "fluency" in creating their own scientific experiments and their own scientific instruments. That is, after participating in our project, are students more likely and more able to create new tools (even very simple tools) for exploring phenomena in their everyday lives?

Evaluation of theoretical framework. We will evaluate two major theoretical issues underlying this project: (a) what is the appropriate mix of physical and virtual objects in learning activities? (b) what is the appropriate mix of "transparent" and "opaque" objects in learning activities?

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the use of "virtual environments" for educational purposes. Educators have noted the incredible "holding power" of video games and other virtual environments, and they have wondered whether that same power could be harnessed towards educational ends. But the rush to "virtualize" learning is lacking theoretical guideposts, leading to misuses of new technology. One recent commercial educational-software product enables students to explore the behavior of "virtual magnets." To us, it seems like a terrible idea to present children with only virtual magnets. Children's engagement with magnets is based on the physical "feel" of magnets tugging against one another; remove the physical and you remove the "magic" of magnets. Albert Einstein explained how his interest in fields grew out of a childhood fascination with a compass (see [Miller 1986], p. 72); it is highly unlikely that Einstein would have become similarly fascinated by a virtual compass.

Our Cricket technology aims to use computation not to replace the physical but to augment the physical. In our evaluation, we will examine the differing affordances provides by physical and virtual objects. We plan to conduct preliminary experiments, in which we observe children using physical and virtual versions of the same objects (such as magnets). We will use these observations as a framework for our observations of students working on Cricket-based activities. Our ultimate goal is to develop better theories to guide the mix of physical and virtual in learning activities.

We will explore a similar set of questions around the issue of "transparency" vs. "opacity." By designing their own scientific instruments, students can experience those instruments as transparent objects—i.e., objects whose purpose and design are rendered understandable. Our hypothesis is that students who experience objects as transparent will develop different kinds of models and understandings of the scientific concepts underlying their investigations. In our evaluation, we will examine what types of models and understandings students develop—and how the transparent nature of the technology influences those understandings. The point is not to prove that transparent is "better." Our goal is to develop a better theoretical framework for how different types of tools and instruments support different types of thinking and understanding.


As part of this project, we will produce new ideas as well as new technologies. We will disseminate new ideas through traditional academic channels: by publishing in major research journals and participating in major conferences. Our efforts will focus especially on the educational-research and computer-science (particularly computer-human interaction) communities. The PIs are very well-known in these communities, participating actively in journals and conferences.

By the end of the project, we expect that our new technologies and activities will be ready for widespread dissemination. Of course, many educational-research projects never move beyond the prototype stage. But we have strong reason to believe that our technologies and activities will eventually be used in large numbers of classrooms (and other educational settings). Our research team has a very strong track record (probably unparalleled in the academic educational-research community) for disseminating educational-technology innovations. The Cricket technology can be viewed as a third-generation technology. The first generation, called LEGO/Logo, was developed by members of our research team a decade ago, and then commercialized by the LEGO company. It is now used in more than 20,000 schools in the United States (and has been used by millions of pre-college students). The second generation, called the Programmable Brick, was developed by our group five years ago and is currently being prepared for a major commercialization effort—for both schools and home-education markets. We fully expect that our Cricket technology to follow the same path toward widespread use in classrooms and homes.


Year 1. During the first year, we will focus primarily on development of technologies and activities. We will develop a new generation of our Cricket technology and related sensors. We will also initiate pilot studies with a small numbers of participants at two informal-science settings: the Computer Clubhouse in Boston and Collage Children's Museum in Boulder. Our initial evaluation will focus on the performance of the technology and on children's reactions to the activities.

Year 2. During the second year, we will expand our pilot studies: working with larger number of students at the Clubhouse and Children's Museum, and initiating studies at middle-school classrooms in Boulder and at a vocational-technical high school in the Boston area. We will hold intensive teacher workshops during the summer, then continue to work closely with teachers and students during the school year. We will revise technologies and activities based on these expereiences, and we will begin deeper and more textured evaluation studies. We will evaluate how the activity of designing scientific instruments contributes to students' engagement in science inquiry, and whether students become more likely and more able to create new tools for exploring phenomena in their everyday lives. Based on our observations, we will also work on the development of theoretical frameworks regarding the role of physical and "transparent" objects in learning.

Year 3. During the third year, we will continue to work closely with teachers and students, including a follow-up summer workshop. We will continue to revise our technologies and activities, and we will extend and deepen our evaluation studies, based on results from Year 2. We will also begin development of support materials for further dissemination. By the end of the project, we expect that technologies and activities will be ready for widespread dissemination, and we will begin discussions with commercial developers (including the LEGO company) to arrange for dissemination.

Core Research Team

Mitchel Resnick, associate professor at the MIT Media Laboratory, specializes in the development and study of computational tools that help people (particularly children) learn new things in new ways. He is particularly interested in how people think about systems-oriented phenomena (such as self-organization and evolution). Resnick is co-creator of LEGO/Logo (a computer-controlled construction kit) and developer of StarLogo (a modeling environment for exploring decentralized systems). He is co-founder of the Computer Clubhouse, an after-school learning center for youth from under-served communities. Resnick earned a BA in physics at Princeton University (1978), and MS and PhD degrees in computer science at MIT (1988, 1992). He worked for five years as a science/technology journalist for Business Week magazine. Resnick was awarded a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award in 1993. He is author of the book Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams, published by MIT Press in 1994.

Michael Eisenberg is assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His research interests include educational computing, mathematics and science education, and scientific computation; he has become especially interested in means of blending "real-world" objects and craft activities with computational media. Eisenberg received his BA in chemistry from Columbia University (1978), and his MS and PhD degrees in computer science from MIT (1985, 1991). He is co-developer of HyperGami, a program for the creation of polyhedral paper models and sculptures (recently the subject of an article in American Scientist magazine); recipient of a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award (in 1992); and author of both a programming textbook (Programming in Scheme, MIT Press, 1988) and a published play (Hackers, published by Samuel French, 1986).

Robert Berg is associate professor of physics at Wellesley College. His research interests include optical spectroscopy of semiconductors and also developing new computational tools for use in science education. He is currently spending a one year sabbatical leave from Wellesley as a visiting professor at the MIT Media Lab. At Wellesley he has taught a broad range of physics courses, devoting particular attention to developing a laboratory electronics course and an advanced physics laboratory course. Berg is a co-principal investigator with Franklyn Turbak of the Wellesley computer science department for a grant from the National Science Foundation's Instrumentation and Laboratory Improvement program entitled Robot-based explorations in a liberal arts environment. He received his BA in physics at Princeton (1978) and MS and PhD degrees in physics from the University of California, Berkeley (1981, 1985). He has been a member of the Wellesley faculty since 1985, receiving tenure in 1990.

Sherry Turkle is professor in MIT's Program in Science Technology and Society. Turkle has written numerous articles on the "subjective side" of people's relationships with technology, especially computers. She is the author of The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (1984). Her most recent research is on the psychology of computer-mediated communication, focusing on how "life on the Internet" is changing people's social lives and views of themselves. Her work includes intensive study of role playing in "virtual communities" on the Internet in which participants create personae that may be as alike or as different from them as they choose. She is particularly interested in interactions and interplay between real and virtual worlds. This work is reported in Life on the Screen: Identitiy in the Age of the Internet (1995).

Fred Martin, a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, will serve as Technical Director for the project. He earned a BS degree in Computer Science in 1986, a MS in Mechanical Engineering in 1988, and a PhD in Media Arts and Sciences in 1994, all from the MIT. Martin has been developing educational robotics technologies at the MIT Media Laboratory since 1986, and is a co-founder of the annual MIT LEGO Robot Design Competition. His new book, The Art of Robotics, will be published by Addison Wesley in 1997.


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