‘Making Smart Kids’ Smarter
That’s what Dr. Brian K. Smith shoots for, working at MIT’s Media Lab. “I just want to make smart kids,” he says. “Here, we try to figure out how to change human performance. How does all this stuff, this technology, impact the world kids live in?”
At the Media Lab, researchers like Smith, 32, are learning how computational tools capture, analyze and improve the quality of life. For Smith, it’s about pioneering research that increases technology access to the social and economic underclass.
He hopes projects like “Image Maps” can improve children’s critical thinking. He and his MIT colleagues have developed a camera prototype wired to a satellite receiver and digital compass. The camera lets people, after shooting pictures in a neighborhood near MIT, view images of those same places as they appeared throughout the previous century. This teaches children to think more scientifically about their urban surroundings, Smith says. “The historical images push them to find out what happened to the community and why it changed,” he says.
Other projects aren’t aimed at a specific age group. Smith has led photography-based discussions among people recently diagnosed with diabetes to help them change their diet and lifestyle. The patients share photos of their meals and their exercise routines and then critique each other. Smith says they nitpick over photos showing ashtrays next to treadmills, or of high-fat dressings drowning the salad greens.
“And sometimes you’re trying to change a cultural attitude,” Smith says. “If everyone else in the family has always eaten gumbo, and you’re diabetic, how are you going to convince the rest of the family that you really shouldn’t have that gumbo without offending them?”
After earning his doctorate at Northwestern, Smith in 1997 became the first African American to join MIT’s Media Lab as tenure-track faculty. Today, he’s still the only African American among the lab of top-tier researchers.
Smith’s introduction to computers came at age 9. His father, a Pacific Bell executive, bought the family an Apple II Plus. As he grew up, an intrigued Smith passed many hours dissecting the computer and programming games and graphics.
Even now, Smith candidly says that when he’s “tracking technology” in his work, he’s often playing a game. “The sense of reality is so amazing when you’re playing Nintendo, Game Cube. You have to wonder what these games do to a kid’s environment,” Smith says.
— By Lydia Lum
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