Date of Award


Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Robotics Institute


Illah Nourbakhsh


This thesis is about a design process for creating educationally relevant tools. I submit that the key to creating tools that are educationally relevant is to focus on ensuring a high degree of alignment between the designed tool and the broader educational context into which the tool will be integrated. The thesis presents methods and processes for creating a tool that is both well aligned and relevant.

The design domain of the thesis is described by a set of tools I refer to as “Configurable Embodied Interfaces”. Configurable embodied interfaces have a number of key features, they:

  • Can sense their local surroundings through the detection of such environmental and physical parameters as light, sound, imagery, device acceleration, etc.
  • Act on their local environment by outputting sound, light, imagery, motion of the device, etc.
  • Are configurable in such a way as to link these inputs and outputs in a nearly unlimited number of ways.
  • Contain active ways for users to either directly create new programs linking input and output, or to easily re-configure them by running different programs on them.
  • Are user focused; they assume that a human being is manipulating them in some way, through affecting input and observing output of the interface.

Spurred by the growth of cheap computation and sensing, a large number of educational programs have been built around use of configurable embodied interfaces in the last three decades. These programs exist in both formal and informal educational settings and are in use from early childhood through adult and community education. Typically, configurable embodied interfaces are used as tools in three major and sometimes overlapping areas: computer Science education, creative and engineering design education, and traditional science and math education.

This work details three examples of collaborations between technologists and educators that led to the creation of educationally successful tools; these three examples share a focus on creating a configurable embodied interface to tackle a specific cognitive and affective set of learning goals, but differ completely in the location of the learning environment, the age and interests of the learners, and the nature of the learning goals. Through the exploration of the methods used, an analysis of the general and context-specific features of the design processes of the three accounts, and a comparison of the process used in this thesis to a conventional engineering design process, this work provides case studies and a set of guidelines that can inform technologists interested in designing educationally relevant embodied interfaces