Tech-tinkering class: A STEM gateway.

By Keely Savoie

Kelli Kydd FP’18 had raised four of her own kids, had helped raise four nieces and nephews, and was caring for her ailing mother when she applied to Mount Holyoke College’s Frances Perkins Program for nontraditional students. She was looking for a way to advance her career as an educator, while maintaining the flexibility she needed as a caretaker.

The program director, Carolyn Dietel, suggested Kydd enroll in iDesign Studio, a summer computer science course, as a way to get her feet wet.

“I thought it sounded like a great idea,” Kydd said. “I could get acclimated to the College and get more comfortable with computers. It was the best thing for me.”

In just a few weeks, she was designing and coding and creating a custom project from scratch—and planning to major in computer science and math.

iDesign is a crash course in coding and circuitry with a twist. It’s engineered for students with little to no background in computer science. Within just a few classes, students build enough knowledge and skill in the field to develop and design their own projects based on their unique interests. Past classes have yielded everything from an interactive children's book about a lit-up chameleon that changes colors according to its background, to a "Music Touch" tool to help people learn to sight-read music.

“It’s an extraordinary transformation. They go from knowing nothing about the process to feeling comfortable with circuits and code in the first week and a half,” said Roberto Mugnani, director of program development for Mount Holyoke College’s Professional and Graduate Education (PaGE) program, who helped coordinate the course, with funding from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.

The course is the brainchild of Audrey St. John, an associate professor of computer science. St. John enlisted Shani Mensing ’15 and Nicole Hoffler ’16 two years ago to help create iDesign as a first-year seminar that would be both engaging and accessible while teaching students mastery of new skills. Mensing became a driving force for the curriculum and again mentored students, including Kydd, in the offering this summer.

Within just a few classes, Kydd saw a wholly new world of possibility was within her reach as an educator, she said.

“This course inspired me to think about how technology could be used to bring kids together,” she said.

For her final project, Kydd designed an X-shaped pad that plays music and displays lights only when two or more people stand on sensors at opposite ends of the pad.

“The sensors are too far apart for one person to do it alone,” Kydd explained. “I wanted something that would require them to work together for a reward, and something I knew would engage the students I’ve been working with.”

The tool allows a person to step on a sensor pad, prompting a blaze of lights that scrolls up to the center of an “X.” Two students standing on different sensors at the same time could trigger the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, three others might hear “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars. And another group hears “Build Me Up Buttercup” by The Foundations.

“This project is just a prototype, but if dreams come true, once I have a computer science degree I will be able develop it more completely and incorporate math and reading, too,” Kydd said.

Related:An exploration of where art and science meet.

Mensing, who assisted in teaching the class, helped Kydd work through the challenges of her design to bring it to fruition.

“Seeing her get inspired when she started understanding programming after only a few hours was an amazing experience,” Mensing recalled, adding that she hopes experiences like Kydd’s will galvanize more iDesign students to push further into STEM.

“My hope is to reveal the mysteries of what technology is,” said Mensing, who graduated with a major in cognitive computer science in May. “You can hold your phone and play with an app and have no idea what goes into making it work. Demystifying technology can really create a sense of empowerment, and that’s what we want to bring to our students.”

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