Froehlich Receives NSF CAREER Award to Develop Wearable Technology for Kids

Tue Feb 14, 2017

A University of Maryland expert in human-computer interaction has won a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award for a project designed to spark kids’ interest in science and technology.

Jon Froehlich, an assistant professor of computer science in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), is principal investigator of the NSF award, expected to total $590,000 over five years.

The funding supports a crossdisciplinary team investigating new interfaces, techniques and tools that encourage children ages 5–10 to build and program their own interactive wearables. For example, children can create “headlight hats” that turn on automatically in the dark, “magical” garments that support sociodramatic play—recreating events or scenes a child has experienced—or motion-reactive “light-up shoes” that track physical activity and exercise.

“We believe that involving children in creative design and STEM experiences is critically important, especially at a young age,” says Froehlich, who is joined on the project by Tamara Clegg, an assistant professor in the College of Education with a joint appointment in the UMD iSchool, and several students in Froehlich’s Makeability Lab.

“Since joining UMIACS in 2012, Jon’s work has continuously integrated advances in computer science and technology with real human needs and challenges. We are extremely proud of his research and scholarship,” says Mihai Pop, a professor of computer science and interim director of UMIACS.

Recent data from the National Research Council recommends engaging children from kindergarten onward in scientific and engineering practices, Froehlich says. This engagement is particularly important in computer science, he adds, which faces systemic problems like negative perceptions of the field, or sociocultural barriers that include low participation from women and racial minorities.

The UMD researchers believe the current crop of wearable construction toolkits addresses some of these issues, including attracting underrepresented groups to STEM and expanding perceptions of computing. But these commercial kits often require some level of programming, or an understanding of electronics and circuits, or manual skills like sewing.

“This can make the whole process uninviting, especially for young children,” Froehlich says.

To address this challenge, Froehlich and his team have designed a set of “plug-and-play” modules that kids can pick and choose from to easily design their own interactive wear. The modules include counters, light sensors and motion detectors.

Froehlich says his team will work directly with preschoolers and kindergarteners from the university’s Center for Young Children, deeming them “co-designers” on interactive wearables that focus on three areas: science, the arts and athletics.

The project includes assessment meetings with other experts in education and cognitive development to address topics like usability, children’s design outcomes, skill development and differences across age groups.

For older children (ages 8–10), the researchers propose adding complementary, touchscreen interfaces to the wearables that can be used to create increasingly sophisticated designs through visual programming, debugging, and sensor-based programming by demonstration—all skills needed for success in computer science.

“While our target age range for this project is ambitious—spanning differences in cognitive and motor skills as well as educational experiences—a key focus of our research is to better understand how to increase the approachability of wearable design, even for young children, and to scaffold users into creating increasingly complex designs to match their ability level,” Froehlich says.


CAREER: A Tangible-Graphical Approach to Engage Young Children in Wearable Design” is supported by NSF grant #1652339 from the NSF’s Division of Information and Intelligent Systems.

PI: Jon Froehlich, assistant professor of computer science with an appointment in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS).

About the CAREER award: The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is an NSF activity that offers the foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organization.

About the Makeability Lab: Founded in 2012 by Jon Froehlich, the Makeability Lab focuses on designing and studying novel interactive experiences that cross between bits and atoms—the virtual and the physical—and back again to confront some of the world's greatest challenges in environmental sustainability, health and wellness, education and universal accessibility.