The biggest benefit of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Informatics' (IGPI) interdisciplinary framework is that students whose interests don’t fit well with an existing program find the flexibility to customize a unique curriculum. In doing so, they’re free to pursue personal interests, passions and goals from a number of departments where they can learn from nationally-recognized faculty who will support their objectives.
Luiza Superti Pantoja knew that when it comes to designing better technology for children, it would help to begin with an entirely fresh framework for innovation and discovery.
As a Brazilian native, Pantoja was familiar with Seymour Papert’s Samba School Learning Communities that gained inspiration from the African-Brazilian dance and drumming style. She had also spent five years working directly with preschool children to develop a better understanding of how they play, and what interests them.
Unlike the common authoritarian education model where children are required to sit still and pay attention to the teacher, Samba Schools encourage movement, creativity, and freedom of expression. It is believed that this environment fosters more empowered and enlightened adults; Pantoja is living proof that it must work.
“While preschool children use technology, to date there are no well-documented participatory design methods that included this age group in the process of development,” she said. To address this oversight, she formed her thesis around the concept of Play-Based Design, and “Tools of the Mind;” an evidence-based curriculum that promotes make-believe play.
Pantoja and her team set out to develop voice-user interfaces (VUIs), and a web-based application called StoryCarnival which gives children control over how they play. They’re able to select their own roles, and contribute ideas as they act, speak and make-believe play with other children, voice agents, adult facilitators and props. Taking it a step further, her team explored the possibility of applying Play-Based Design principles to VUIs and Internet-of-Things devices that have become ubiquitous in most homes, but that are typically only road-tested by adults.
Pantoja’s dissertation propelled her on an interdisciplinary journey at U-Iowa through child development theories, storytelling for children, graphic design, qualitative methods, software development, and related approaches from literature. As an IGPI scholar, she was advised by professors in Communication Studies, Communication Sciences and Disorders, College of Education and Computer Science. She learned coding skills by taking Intro to Python and Stata workshops offered by the UI3 and Iowa Social Science Research Center (ISRC).
Her PhD journey became even more exciting when she gave birth to her son. “Becoming a mother while pursuing a PhD requires extra dedication, and I also had a supportive husband, great advising from IGPI Associate Director Informatics Education Juan Pablo Hourcade (Computer Science), and access to a variety of valuable resources and services that are available to nontraditional scholars,” she said. Among Iowa resources she found most useful were childcare subsidies, lactation rooms, IGPI travel grant, counseling support, and the campus Recreation and Wellness center.
Pantoja successfully defended her thesis in July and became one of Iowa’s first Human-Computer Interaction PhDs. Prior to pursuing a PhD, she worked as a designer for six years. She now looks forward to continuing her professional career with a startup that develops computer applications for children. In retrospect, she’s thankful for the challenges that motherhood presented. “While it wasn’t easy, having a baby strengthened my passion for improving educational resources for young children, and I’m more motivated than ever to commercialize products my son can use,” she added.
Dr. Pantoja (third from left) and her interdisciplinary advisory team, from left: Professor Emeritus Patricia Zebrowski (Communication Sciences and Disorders); Professor and Associate Dean for Research Joseph Kearney (College of Liberal Arts & Sciences); Associate Director UI3 Informatics Education Juan Pablo Hourcade (Computer Science); Assistant Professor Kyle Rector (Computer Science); and Assistant Professor Benjamin Devane (College of Education).