IDesign Studio redefines tech perception

By Lauren Simonds 

IDesign Studio, one of Mount Holyoke College’s most popular classes, was created by a professor who used to think that technology was for men who didn’t want to work with people. In other words, not for her. 

“The subject seemed so formidable, and I didn’t believe I could do — much less enjoy — the work,” said Audrey St. John, associate professor of computer science. “I only tried it because it seemed like websites were going to be important and I thought I should know how to make one.” 

Two discoveries changed St. John’s mind and her academic trajectory. She found that although technology appeared intimidating on the outside, it wasn’t all that hard. And when she discovered technology’s power and creativity, she was hooked. 

So when St. John became a faculty member at Mount Holyoke, she simply created the computer science course that she wished had existed when she was an undergraduate. 

That class is iDesign Studio, a unique course specifically for tech-phobic first-year students in their first semester. Students who would be hard-pressed to take a class in computer science, much less major in it. IDesign Studio quickly became so popular that it’s now open to all classes and offered both semesters. Summer sessions have also been offered to girls in high school and middle school, and professional educators in the community. 

In today’s economy, you could call the class essential, said Katherine Aidala, who chairs both physics and engineering. That’s because while not everyone will perform actual engineering, science or technology in their jobs, everyone working in the 21st century will need confidence in their ability to learn about and interact with those fields. 

“Technology infuses every aspect of daily life and every career path,” she said. “The more you believe you can learn enough of what you need to be conversant, to problem solve, to ask the right questions, the better off you’ll be in life. IDesign Studio helps students build that confidence.” 

It’s also just plain fun. IDesign Studio sits at the crossroads of art, computer science and creativity — with a serving of entrepreneurship on the side. St. John first offered it to first-year students in fall 2013. She recruited her advisee, Shani Mensing ’15, to help develop the course the summer before. Together they brainstormed different types of fun, hands-on projects that included a technological component to power them. 

The class debuted that fall as a first-year seminar, one of about 30 classes designed to welcome new students to Mount Holyoke College through small, discussion-based seminars. The experience introduces students to an intellectually adventurous education in the liberal arts. 

At the time, the class also fulfilled a math and computer science requirement. That enticing carrot convinced 14 tech-averse souls — none of whom had any desire to major in computer science — to take a leap of faith. Inspired, four of them went on to major in computer science and, after graduating in 2017, three took jobs at YouTube, Shopify and Girls Who Code. One is working toward her doctorate in computer science at the University of Washington. 

While clearly interested in introducing more women to computer science, both St. John and Mensing agree that iDesign offers long-term benefits to every student of every major. 

“IDesign bridges technology and art in an unexpected way, and it gives students a pathway to challenge their pre-conceived limitations of what they can or can’t do,” said Mensing. “It’s an empowering experience that pays off throughout life no matter what career they pursue.” 

IDesign and the Makerspace 

The profound success of iDesign Studio also became the driving force behind the maker movement on campus. Mount Holyoke’s Makerspace, currently located in the Art Building, is where boundless creativity meets 21st-century technology. Mensing helped found it and, after graduating, became its first coordinator. 

“The Makerspace happened because iDesign happened,” said Aidala. “IDesign came first, and its extraordinary popularity with students and faculty in such a variety of fields is one reason why the Makerspace has received so much support.” 

That enthusiasm includes a $3.5 million, 8,000-square-foot Maker and Innovation Lab now under construction in Prospect Hall. 

That’s welcome news for students like Joud Mar’i ’19, a neuroscience and behavior major. For her iDesign project, she built a model that simulates neurological symptoms in split-brain patients, where the connection between the two hemispheres is severed. 

“IDesign gave me the tools to create my academic route with my own unique twist,” said Mar’i. “It pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me discover what excites me.” 

Currently she’s developing a striking device in the Makerspace to inflict head-specific concussions on fruit flies which, incredibly, will provide insight into human traumatic brain injuries. 

IDesign Studio in two parts 

IDesign Studio is now held in the Makerspace, which is packed with computers, various cutters, printers and other equipment, and a myriad of other tools and materials. These resources give students a chance to really explore technology on many levels. 

The first half of iDesign exposes students to the basics. They learn to complete electrical circuits, light LEDs and solder circuit boards. Working with wires, batteries and circuits can be daunting at first, but as students work through their labs, they learn it’s not hard, it’s just new. 

In one of the first assignments, students combine LEDs with conductive fabric and thread to create a pair of stuffed animals. Touching the toy completes a circuit and makes its eyes light up. 

The students also learn basic coding, such as how to program a microprocessor and how to incorporate sensors that react to light and motion, for example, into their assignments. 

During the second half, students apply their own passions and creativity to conceive and complete a final project. Every student writes a business presentation and delivers a product pitch to get their project approved. The entrepreneurial aspect is an opportunity to practice communication skills and build confidence in talking about technology. 

Then students design and build. They learn what worked and — often more important — what didn’t. They learn to fail, troubleshoot and recover, and this lather-rinse-repeat process develops resilience and instills a valuable skill set for virtually any profession. 

The original iDesign cohort came up with a creative range of final projects. Eva Snyder ’17 combined conductive ink and a touch sensor to build an interactive learning tool for kids. Touching individual notes printed on pages produces corresponding tones. Snyder, who double majored in computer science and music and co-founded the College’s annual hackathon, HackHolyoke, currently works as a software engineer at YouTube. 

Madeline Ketley ’17, an ancient studies major, connected her love of ballet with a microprocessor, a gyro sensor and LED strips to create a teaching tool in the form of a smart skirt. By displaying specific colors, it tells dancers when their stance is off-kilter. She currently works at Christie’s auction house in New York City. 

These are only a few of the many examples of the iDesign Studio effect, said Aidala, noting that well over 100 students have taken the class, a number that is continually growing. 

“IDesign demystifies technology and transforms students’ attitudes about what they can do,” she said. “It encourages exploration and creativity, regardless of their major, and it helps them find a path they want to pursue.”

Design your future. Visit.  

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