Q&A with Kyle Keane, Lecturer and Research Scientist in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Steve Nelson

Kyle Keane holds a joint appointment as a Lecturer and Research Scientist in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering where he created the Interactive Materials Education Laboratory (IMEL) to develop and validate methods of making education more socially, physically, and intellectually reciprocal for learners. Keane is a creative technologist with a deeply utilitarian commitment to disability advocacy and educational innovation, He has been a lead instructor for 6.811 Principles and Practices of Assistive Technology, 3.016 Computational Methods for Materials Science and Engineering, and 3.024 Electronic, Optical, and Magnetic Properties of Materials. His newest subject 3.008 Humanistic Co-design of Assistive Technologies in the Developing World will have its inaugural run in 2019 when it will bring a group of MIT students to India to perform fieldwork exploring how innovations in materials, manufacturing, design, and computation can aid people living with disabilities in regions where there is less accommodating infrastructure than in the US.

Keane holds a PhD in computational physics and before joining MIT in 2015, he was a Research Programmer at Wolfram Research (Makers of Mathematica and Wolfram|Alpha), where he worked on various projects, such as helping Apple’s Siri be the first assistant to speak computational results, creating an algorithm that could solve equations that involved units with step-by-step solutions that a student could reproduce to learn through modeled mastery, and pioneering the first draft of a institutional standard for the verbal communication of interactive scientific graphics to students who are blind. Keane is passionate about educational technology, especially making it accessible for all students.  

When did you first become interested in educational technology?

It might seem strange based on my age and occupation, but I did not use a computer until my second year in college at California State University, Fullerton; at which point I had the distinct honor of taking two computational physics classes taught by Dr. Gregory Childers and Dr. James Feagin. I did not realize at the time that Dr. Feagin had literally “written the book” on coding in Wolfram Language to study quantum physics, which would later become the keystone of my PhD dissertation. I remember the first simulation I ever coded in Dr. Childers class, we visualized the solution of the differential equations that described a ball bouncing against a wall. From that moment on, I have been obsessed with solving problems with computers--whether large or small or social or scientific, I can usually find a way to use a computer to gain insight into problems.

What types of educational research are you and your team currently working on?

Within my lab we explore many facets of education including social support in learning environments, the effects of emotional investment on comprehension, open exploration using interactive digital graphics, coding to learn, computational storytelling, and humanistic co-design. We employ a range of qualitative and quantitative research methodologies borrowed from psychology, positive psychology, user experience research, design validation, and data analytics. One of our current projects focuses on measuring whether inserting computer programming exercises into online physics classes will impact physics comprehension for students who fall into various categories of personality and have differing pre-existing spatial reasoning, coding skill, and physics knowledge. We are also looking at the effects of integrating peer-teaching, creative expression, and storytelling into a class about computational materials science. We are in the early stages of defining how to validate anecdotal evidence about humanistic co-design that suggests learning engineering skills in direct service of another person offers advantages over traditional project-based curriculum.

Are there things someone can do to help increase the accessibility of education for people with disabilities?

This is an extraordinarily complicated topic with some simple actions people can take in the short-term that will yield long-term effects. Advocacy starts with knowledge, but knowledge comes in many flavors. I prefer a brand of information presented without shaming or attributing malicious intentions to systemic shortcomings. For example, someone who failed to add captions to their video might have simply forgotten to do so because they do not regularly get reminded how huge of an impact it can make for people with physical and circumstantial hearing impairment. I think if each person took an afternoon and learned about some topic and decided they would share it with relevant people in their community we could make a huge cultural shift. For instance, pick one or two points to learn from the web accessibility guidelines known as “WCAG” and then excitedly shared them with every web developer you meet, “Oh cool, you do web development? I don’t know much about what goes into creating a website, but I know the world runs on the web. I was actually reading about the web accessibility guidelines called WCAG the other day, it talked about how blind people use the headings to quickly skip through websites and use the tab key to find links. I hadn’t realized that many blind people use only the keyboard to navigate since using a mouse is very visual. Do you ever work on that type of thing?” I see two great benefits from engaging in this activity: you become conversant in topics that will help you make friends and you teach/remind the person about small things they can do to help people with disabilities access their websites. The truth is most web developers will not get a chance to observe people with various disabilities using their website if they make it accessible so it is important for us to reinforce the perceived value of this activity through cultural support. If someone tells you they do in fact run tests to try to make their website accessible, then offer them a token of social capital, “that is super cool that you worry about those things already.” I think these social, cultural, and interpersonal incentives to remember that there are ways to build on the existing infrastructure of standards for helping people with disabilities is an invaluable activity that each of us can engage in every day. If you really get interested, then find local disability advocacy organizations, every state in the US and most places in the world have a government entity who has been tasked with aiding people who have disabilities, they will often have leads for finding more local organizations.

What is your favorite thing about working at MIT?

The Department of Materials Science and Engineering has been unwaveringly supportive of my sometimes out-of-the-box ideas about changing classroom environments and experimenting with new approaches to knowledge acquisition. They have offered me the opportunity to do a wide variety of things; from adding scientific computing into a class that has traditionally been done with pencil and paper to bringing a group of students to travel around India engaging with people who have disabilities to give them a chance to share their unique perspectives while expressing their intrinsic human ingenuity. I sincerely have a great respect for the institution and the community that keeps it alive.