Educational Toy for Children with Autism

G. Derksen Informatics PhD: Design Technology and Culture

This research project focuses on a smart educational toy to help children with autism learn and apply knowledge to new subjects. The toy is equipped with machine learning to predict the best plan for individual children and accommodate for their emotional state. The more likely the child is ready to learn the better chance they will be engaged and acquire the information. Each session of play is captured using sensors built into the toy to create a pattern of learning. The learning pattern is assessed based on previous 10,000+ sessions increasing the probability to predict the next action. These patterns may help us understand how we learn as well as promote the best opportunities for learning.

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Since August 2018, the toy project has gained interest in academic journals and funding bodies for its initial development. The prestigious journal 'Formy' out of the University of Krakov published a prospectus entitled "Learning patterns: Intelligent toys for children with autistic disorders" that provides a detailed framework of the study. A follow-up abstract and presentation was published in the conference proceedings at the International Association for Computer Information Systems (IACIS) describing the functionality of the toy as an IoT device.

Project Funding

Gerry Derksen to receive the TIER-ED fellowship grant in fall 2020

The toy project has received funding from two granting bodies; the first from the Campus Research Board at the University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign that funds innovative research projects. The principle investigator is Dr. Stan Ruecker from the Department of Art + Design at the UIUC. The second grant came from the Technology Innovation in Educational Research and Design (TIER-ED) group. Gerry Derksen was awarded the 2020-21 TIER-ED graduate fellowship and grant for the toy's preliminary user study that implements the first functioning prototypes.

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Project Images


After spending a semester on sabbatical in Urbana-Champaign, Prof. Derksen continues working on his PhD. at the University of Illinois. As of August 18th, 2020 I will be in back in South Carolina to work on my remaining courses. I had a very productive sabbatical ...from Winthrop to learn more about Informatics and Design. This is the second half of my degree and I have enjoyed it so far. I am also anticipating continued conversations with my fellow PhD. students and advisors at the U of I about my dissertation topic. This pandemic has proven to be a benefit to focused attention and not much else, however I look forward to a normal routine. Check out our research group page at the Design Concepts Lab for project information and updates. here.

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Professor Gerry Derksen is originally from Canada where he went to the University of Manitoba’s architecture school and later graduate school at the University of Alberta. Under Jorge Frascara he studied visual communication design, which integrated user centred design philosophy with traditional marketing communication strategies. The subject of his masters thesis, “Jury perceptions of animation”, studied re-enactments of a crime scene to determine the prejudicial impact on a jury. Much of Prof. Derksen’s published research includes interactive media for the web and stand-alone applications on alternative platforms. Currently, he is a Full Professor at the Winthrop University in Visual Communication Design and active in the practice, research of communication design, usability and information design.

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Gerry Derksen is also a design consultant working on experience design, interactive media, and mixed reality projects.

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