Ph.D. Thesis

mooseSculpting Behavior
A tangible language for hands-on play and learning

Public defense of Ph.D. thesis

December 11, 2007 10 a.m. MIT Media Lab, Weisner room, 2nd floor (map)
Watch a webcast of the oral presentation



For over a century, educators and constructivist theorists have argued that children learn by actively forming and testing – constructing – theories about how the world works. Recent efforts in the design of “tangible user interfaces” (TUIs) for learning have sought to bring together interaction models like direct manipulation and pedagogical frameworks like constructivism to make new, often complex, ideas salient for young children. Tangible interfaces attempt to eliminate the distance between the computational and physical world by making behavior directly manipulable with one’s hands. In the past, systems for children to model behavior have been either intuitive-but-simple, e.g. curlybot or complex-but-abstract, e.g. LEGO Mindstorms. In order to develop a system that supports a user’s transition from intuitive-but-simple constructions to constructions that are complex-but-abstract, I draw upon constructivist educational theories, particularly Bruner’s theories of how learning progresses through enactive then iconic and then symbolic representations.

I present the Topobo system, a class of tools that helps people transition from simple-but-intuitive exploration to abstract-and-flexible exploration. The system is designed to facilitate mental transitions between different representations of ideas, and between different tools. A modular design approach, with an inherent grammar, helps people make such transitions. With Topobo, children use enactive knowledge, e.g. knowing how to walk, as the intellectual basis to understand a scientific domain, e.g. engineering and robot locomotion. Queens, backpacks, Remix and Robo add various abstractions to the system, and extend the tangible interface. Children use Topobo to transition from hands-on knowledge to theories that can be tested and reformulated, employing a combination of enactive, iconic and symbolic representations of ideas.


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Thesis Committee

Thesis Advisor
Hiroshi Ishii
Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Thesis Reader
Mitchel Resnick
LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Thesis Reader
John Maeda
Associate Director of Research
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Hayes Raffle | Biography

Hayes Raffle is a Ph.D. candidate in the Tangible Media Group a the MIT Media Lab. He is a practicing artist and designer researching how interactive toys, systems and new devices can support hands-on communication, education, and creative expression.

Before attending the Media Lab, Hayes received a B.A. in fine arts (sculpture) at Yale, helped design and develop the award-winning
ZOOB® building system and ran his own art and design studio in California. He is the winner of several internationally recognized design awards and has shown his art in Europe and the United States.

hayes (at)