Jason Yip: Partnering with kids to design learning technology

When new iSchool Assistant Professor of Digital Youth Jason Yip was a young kid growing up near Washington, D.C., one of his favorite pastimes was learning about science by exploring the area’s world-class museums.

“Not that I don’t love Seattle—but one thing Seattle does not have is free museums,” Yip said. “I got lucky—my parents were like, what do we do with him? Let’s just take him to the museum! I loved them, and I loved tinkering and messing around with things. By the time I was in high school, I was in love with science.”

That early love of science led Yip to an internship as an immunology researcher at the National Institute of Health while he was still in high school. While there, he discovered that while he definitely loved science, he was less happy with the actual day-to-day work of a medical research scientist.

“I didn’t really like the micro things you have to do to be a lab scientist,” Yip explained. “A lot of lab science is playing around and messing around—but sometimes we kill that. The daily repetition of cutting up mice just wasn’t my thing.”

Yip continued exploring his passion for science as an undergrad, earning his BA in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. But by the time he embarked on his master’s studies, he’d decided to explore a slightly new direction that favored his more exploratory approach. He enrolled in U. Penn’s Graduate School of Education, where he earned his M.S. in Science and Math Education.

There, Yip found that combining his passions for exploration and science made for a powerful combination in the classroom. He taught high school chemistry, biology, and math at area public and private schools for a total of six years.

But while the teaching itself was gratifying, the existing science teaching tools and curricula didn’t live up to his expectations.

“I wasn’t satisfied with the way science curricula were designed,” Yip said. “They seemed outdated, and just weren’t working for me. I realized I really wanted to spend my time thinking about what it means to teach chemistry, and what it means to design curriculum.”

To pursue that goal, Yip started Ph.D. studies at the University of Maryland’s College of Education. It was a rewarding field of study, but after three years thinking about chemistry education, a random event changed the course of Yip’s career again. His advisor accepted a position at the University of Illinois - Chicago.

“I had to decide whether I wanted to follow him, or did I want to stay in Maryland,” Yip said. “I decided because of my family to stay in Maryland. That turned out to be a really big decision that’s shaped who I am. I’ve always been very interested in computing, so before he left, my advisor suggested I shift my focus to Human Computer Interaction (HCI).” Yip began working on child-computer interaction with a new advisor, Allison Druin, who was doing pioneering work in the field at Maryland’s iSchool and Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL).

“That was when it came together for me in one big theme,” Yip said. “How do we think about designing learning technologies for children?”

Yip wrote his dissertation on how children develop a sense of ownership over science learning in a life-relevant learning environment. He focused on kids’ interactions with technology, science, and cooking in an after-school program called Kitchen Chemistry. That work led to yet another big realization—and one final twist in Yip’s path.

“It made me realize there was a big missing piece in my research. I didn’t know anything about what happened with these kids when they went home. How do they learn science with their families? I just assumed they did.”

Yip found the perfect place to explore that question when he accepted a post-doc research fellowship at the Sesame Workshop’s Joan Ganz Cooney Center in New York City.

“Sesame Street has taken research very seriously for 40 years,” Yip said. “It (Sesame Workshop) looks like a lot of fun, but they’re thinking about hard problems, like how do children utilize technology with their families? How does technology help families come together? What can we do, particularly in my field, to get children and families to come together? All those bits and pieces came together into a research agenda that focuses on participation.”

It’s been an eclectic path, but Yip feels he’s found the perfect home to continue his explorations at UW’s iSchool.

“I like the eclecticness of the iSchool here at Washington,” Yip said. “It makes me feel comfortable to be in an environment where it’s okay to think something could have learning implications, but I don’t have to hear the ‘L’ word (learning) all the time. It gives me a chance to breathe and be creative. I like being in a place where everyone came from a different place.”

Yip is currently the co-principal investigator on a four-year NSF funded project to develop a community-based social network of science learning tools. Science Everywhere is the continuation of his dissertation work, in which he will examine how mobile social media, large interactive tangible displays, and streaming media can support how families and children in neighborhoods engage in science together. He’s eager to develop new research connections between the iSchool and UW’s College of Education. And he’s passionate about building a children’s co-design research team at the UW in which children and adolescents will partner with researchers to develop new youth-based technologies.

“I’m looking for helpers!” Yip said. “I want to explore what we can learn from children. Not as users, testers, or informants—but as (equal) partners in the design process. I want to help children become active citizens, active learners, and active users. I’m really interested in designing with kids, and I think Seattle is a great place for that. That’s why my office is kind of a goofy place, because that’s how I want it to be. You can’t separate fun and learning.”