By Kenna Bruner
Four-year-old Haruka talks with a technologically-augmented stuffed animal to tell a story about her preschool artwork. Haruka describes how an ostrich was playing on the beach and found a turtle and a frog. The ostrich used her mouth to carefully put them back into the water and then looked around the beach for more creatures. As the Lafayette, Colorado, preschooler shares her thoughts, the stuffed animal zebra asks Haruka questions to deepen her story.
This is the work of Layne Jackson Hubbard, a PhD student in computer science who designs and builds playful prototypes to support young children in expressing their ideas.
“When we help them go deeper with what they’ve created,” Hubbard said, “We can see there’s a whole story in their mind.”
Hubbard was recently awarded a prestigious graduate fellowship in human-computer interaction from the National Science Foundation to fund her PhD studies.
Working at the intersection of human-centered computing and early childhood development, Hubbard is advised by Assistant Professor Tom Yeh, whose own research advances the production of tactile picture books for children with visual impairments.
“Dr. Yeh is passionate about building accessible and creative learning opportunities, especially for those who are underestimated or underrepresented,” Hubbard said. “His lab is a perfect fit for my research.”
Hubbard develops algorithms to guide voice interactions for preliterate students, and designs tangible, inquisitive companions for engaging children in creative reflection.
“Children are very blunt, which is helpful for me as a designer,” she said. “I worked hard on the algorithm making it open-ended enough to meet children at many stages of development.”
To do so, she draws on her four years of experience as a teacher at Children’s House Preschool in Boulder.
“I was fortunate to teach alongside the preschool’s exceptional directors, Elaine McCarthy and Michael Knuckey,” said Hubbard. In 2010, McCarthy was named Educator of the Year by Boulder County’s chapter of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC); in 2015, Knuckey was also awarded the honor.
“They immersed me in the Storybook Journey curriculum, which was developed by Sue McCord—a former faculty member in the Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences Department at CU Boulder. In her curriculum, McCord emphasizes playful exploration as an essential component of human development. She sees stories as a bridge between children and their communities.”
Not only does creative reflection give children an opportunity to speak their mind, but the rich and imaginative stories help teachers and parents connect to the children’s emerging selves.
“Kids as young as 3 and 4 create beautiful, well-developed stories that show a lot about who they are, what they care about, and where they are in their social and emotional development,” Hubbard said.
This summer, Hubbard traveled to Stanford University to attend a conference on Interaction Design and Children.
“While there, one of my computer science professors, Dr. Mike Eisenberg, gave a powerful keynote speech,” said Hubbard. “He encouraged the audience of designers to engage children not only in learning known concepts, but also in investigating phenomena that we don’t yet understand. This reaffirmed my passion for partnering with children in intellectual exploration.”
Hubbard works with her team of three Discovery Learning Center apprentices, who are undergraduates in electrical and mechanical engineering and computer science, producing a storytelling companion that can engage children in any language.
“Each of the apprentices are incredible thinkers, and are determined to find creative solutions to our technical challenges. I’m grateful to have them on my team,” said Hubbard.
To create and test the storytelling prototypes, Hubbard collaborates with children, parents, teachers, speech-language therapists and classrooms. To date, Hubbard and her team have helped children tell stories in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese. Next, they are working to add Arabic, Russian, German and Nepalese to their platform to support the population of a local preschool.
“This work is about dynamic listening,” Hubbard said, “letting children speak the things they don’t often get a chance to talk about: their inventions, their creations, their ideas.”
Hubbard credits CU Boulder and the Graduate School for providing the support and funding that enables her to follow her dream.
“The thing that touches me most about the CU community is how I’ve been so well supported,” she said. “With that support, I’ve been able to see a strong trajectory of how I can realize my goals for empowering young children.”