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‘Explanation Architect’

‘Explanation Architect’

changing educational thinking through research

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Back in 1986, Dr. Brian K. Smith was given a book by his father Charles about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s world-renowned Media Lab. The book so inspired the southern California teenager that he vowed to become part of the lab some day.
So a few years later while preparing for graduate school in computer science, Smith applied to the media lab. He was turned down.
Years later, while finishing his computer science Ph.D. at Northwestern University, Smith responded to an open faculty position advertisement he saw in an academic journal.
At the time he was hired, Smith was 27 years old — the youngest ever to join the lab’s faculty until that point. He was also the first Black person to be hired as a full-time professor.
“For years we were unable to attract Black and Latin faculty and students. It was not because of the lack of trying,” says Media Lab head Nicholas Negroponte, adding that the low numbers of Black Ph.D.s in computer-related fields made it nearly impossible to find recruits.
“This changed in the 80’s and people like Alan [Shaw, one of the lab’s Black alumni,) were vital. Most recently, Brian Smith has joined our faculty and the change is even more wonderful,” Negroponte says.
Smith is pioneering in a field known as explanation architecture. The goal of the research is to “develop tools to allow people to learn using images and video in nontraditional ways,” according to Smith.
For example, children participating in Smith’s research are encouraged to reason and think based on images. They are given the opportunity to develop their cognitive skills, or the ability to explain by initially relying on visual images rather than printed language.
Smith, who is a jazz drummer, originally pursued music as a means for helping kids develop cognitive skills. He moved to visual images and video after he came to the Media Lab.
“I’m interested in what kinds of learning takes place when [children] make sense of raw [visual] data,” Smith says.
Smith, who is 30, says he eagerly embraces being a role model to Black students and underrepresented minorities at MIT. Especially at the Media Lab.
Securing tenure at the lab, like in many MIT departments, will require that Smith become a recognized leader in his chosen research field. But the pressure to do so among a lab chock full of technology’s superstars is pretty steep.
“The best way to get tenure is to be able to have people in the education tech field say ‘this guy changed our thinking with his research,'” Smith says.  

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