Ibuki Iwasaki came to MIT without a clear idea of what she wanted to do, but that changed during the spring of her first year, when she left her comfort zone and enrolled in 4.02A (Introduction to Design) . For the final project, her group had to build a modular structure out of foam blocks, producing a design with both two-dimensional and three-dimensional components.
The team ended up shaping 72 unique cubes, carefully planning the pattern and placement of each block so that when assembled, they created a structure with a simple facade but a complex tunnel-like interior.
The experience taught Iwasaki that she was more creative than she realized, and that she loved the progression of the design process, from idea to construction.
It also introduced them to the role that technology can play in design, whether through coding, processing components to analyze how they might fit with each other, or assessing the functionality or success of a model. programs can be used to She became excited to learn how design and technology work together.
Now a senior, Iwasaki double majors in Art and Design, in the Department of Architecture, and in Computation and Cognition in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, finding creative ways to develop technology that prioritizes how individuals and how they think. . He believes that considering the person using the technology is fundamental to the design.
In her first year, Iwasaki joined Concourse, a first-year learning community that integrates humanities-related and STEM-focused classrooms. Later, she also joined the Burchard Scholars Program, a series of dinners with professors from the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, to learn more about the humanities experience at MIT. “Although I was initially afraid that by choosing MIT I was choosing STEM over the humanities, it was not,” she says.
“The design certainly includes aspects of both the humanities and STEM,” she adds.
Further experience with the technical side of design came in the summer of Iwasaki’s second year in an experiential ethics class. Looking at the visual design of social media and its effects on the user, he considered how the layout of an app was shaped by how a person might interact with the platform. For example, he observed how an “infinite scroll” plays into rewarding behavior, which triggers a dopamine response.
“I sense cognition and the human behavior factor into a lot of things, especially designs,” she says.
The classroom sparked Iwasaki’s interest in human-centered design, prompting her to look more closely at the way a person interacts with technology. In January 2020, it pursued its first design-related graduate research opportunity (UROP) through the Urban Risk Laboratory, which designs technology for natural disasters. Iwasaki focused on a project that includes a platform that allows citizens affected by natural disasters as well as emergency responders to communicate information with each other in real time.
She helped design the program’s interface, noting which layout might be easiest for users to interact with. She also worked on a machine-learning component that analyzed reports from specific areas and processed them in a way that was easy for users to understand, ultimately giving emergency responders more time to react. And she was able to sit in on workshops with Japanese emergency responders, even helping to translate their reports via Zoom. The experience was eye-opener for Iwasaki, underscoring how important the individual user is in determining how the technology is implemented.
While Iwasaki had long been concerned with the aesthetic side of design, the ethics class and the following research project sparked a new interest in functionality and a desire to learn more about cognition and behavior to better inform her designs. She took 9.85 (Early Childhood Cognition and Development), one of the first classes in this area, to explore the way young individuals think. And in the summer of 2020, Iwasaki began working in Professor Laura Schulz’s Early Childhood Cognition Lab.
An ongoing study on Zoom, Iwasaki read stories to children and analyzed their responses to specific questions and scenarios. She was particularly interested in studying the “behavior of lapses”. For example, if a parent tells their child that they don’t want anything on the floor, the child may instead of taking their belongings, pile them on their bed, so there’s technically nothing on the floor. Applying these insights to technology, Iwasaki sees flawed behavior as a way to design precise algorithms for information processing.
“Understanding the behavior of flaws in children can provide an understanding of how computers find flaws in code,” she says.
Working with children and studying how they learn also largely influenced Iwasaki’s senior thesis topic, where she looks at how technology is used for educational purposes, on Augmented Reality. What is the focus and how it can be implemented in a better way to enhance learning. She understands that the use of technology in the service of education has great potential, although much work remains to be done.
Iwasaki is also committed to helping other students navigate their MIT experience, as she is an associate mentor to first-year students through MIT’s First Year Office. She sees the role as an opportunity to connect with fellow undergraduates and help them explore their interests. Most recently, she became an associate advisor for particular design majors, she had a 4.02A in her first year under prof. “It has been very rewarding for me to share my experiences and help with first year guidance,” she says.
Looking ahead, Iwasaki hopes to continue studying cognition and its applications to technology and design. In particular, she wants to take a closer look at her thesis topic, focusing on education, and using her background in cognition to inform future designs for more effective learning platforms.
“While it sometimes feels awkward to make a chair in one class to analyze nematode neurons in another, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore both worlds, and to learn and design for education.” Being able to bridge them through study,” she says.