Despite technology's expansion and wide range of possibilities, its reputation for being dry and complicated can be a barrier to entry. Aspiring designers and engineers may feel unable to fit into a rapidly accelerating workplace without the proper tools and training.
Royal College of Art and Imperial College London instructors Arthur Carabott and Guillaume Couche have noticed the resulting strain on Master's students.
"The environment of graduate-level design education is an environment that can all too easily foster insecurity, a sense of inferiority, and 'imposter syndrome,'" they said in a statement. "With a broad range of student backgrounds and skill levels, and high academic expectations, many students may feel intimidated by what they do not know. This is especially true of technical skills, where the bar is continuously rising."
In order to bolster confidence, Carabott and Couche created Intentional Interactions, a technology intensive open to the school's Innovation Design students, as well as visiting students from Beijing's Tsinghua University. In this three-week module, each student designed electronic programs around a simple robotic arm. Students were encouraged to take the project wherever they wanted, which led to a wide range of wild approaches. The team described a resulting "explosion of creativity, with students creating interactive lamps, physical games, dancing birds, interactive sculptures…a physical iPhone Spotify DJ [and] a shy lamp that avoids human touch."
The course was irresistible for its focus on play, as well as its accessibility to students without prior coding experience. Carabott and Couche knew they could easily access high-tech equipment through their connection to higher learning, but wanted to make sure what they chose remained accessible to students after the course ended. The duo's three criteria for planning the course required tools that were 1) regularly used in the industry, 2) available and affordable, and 3) provided [transferable] skills. They also wanted to make sure the resulting course was approachable to newcomers while remaining challenging to students with higher technical proficiency.
"We needed a common thread to assess everyone's progress and make sure basic principles were understood, but the module would have to encourage bifurcations and creativity," the team said. "After considering all of this, custom robot arms felt natural. With anthropomorphism and the uniquely human ability to transpose life into the [simplest] objects, we felt this concept could turn simple motions into delightful emotions."
Students were first trained to operate a simulation of the arm on the popular software programs Unity and Arduino. After creating a control system, the students could easily design interactions between the physical and digital arm.
Each student was required to work by themselves, which Carabott and Couche hoped would encourage the sense of ownership often missing from group projects. They knew the more technically adept students tended to dominate in moments of shared responsibility, prioritizing a good grade over fully learning a process. Carabott and Couche wanted to make sure each student fully understood the tools they were using, as well as to encourage greater innovation in their professional lives.
"For the students, we felt we could provide the greatest value by objectively increasing their technical skills, with the underlying aim of increasing their emotional well-being as well," they said. "This is why we taught fundamental and transferable skills, using industry standard tools, without any sugar coating…Students worked in an open environment, with time dedicated to peer review and support, in order to help them feel comfortable learning together, and being honest about the learning they still needed. We also wanted to mimic a full design project for the students: not only creating the work, but documenting it and presenting it to the world, ultimately creating something worthy of their portfolios."
At the end of the year, the students presented their individual projects to the class, as well as guest lecturer and designer Durrell Bishop. The instructors then gave the class a surprise group assignment, where students had to dissemble, clean, and reassemble their tools in a collaborative light installation. The program was well-reviewed by participating students and ranked as one of the year's best modules in the school's end of year survey.
The success of Intentional Interactions provides a fantastic example of how educators and employers can take technological innovation out of the ivory tower. By fostering an inclusive environment that rewarded play and welcomed beginners, Carabott and Couche showed students and the design world that technology should be accessible and fun. Their focus away from dry, limited interaction systems like coding and UX encouraged students to dream big and focus on their own unique talents. With this kind of program, an aspiring engineer can make exactly the kind of technology they want to make, instead of what they think they should. A graduating student with that kind of training is more likely to enter the professional world with confidence, a heightened sense of creativity, and a sustained love for their chosen work.
Bishop was wowed by the course, and agreed wholeheartedly on its positive effect for students.
"It's a workshop that lets people play…with the right tools [and gives] them a really nice foundation that they feel like they can build on," he said. "It's going to change those students' lives."