New Grad STEAMs Ahead

New Grad STEAMs Ahead

After zipping into a stretchy jumpsuit, six-year-old Petra attaches “muscles” – made of magnets embedded in soft red pillows – to her small arms and legs. When she presses on a plushy heart sewn onto the front of the outfit, a robotic voice prompts her to flex her biceps, triceps, quadriceps and hamstrings. Once she follows through on each command, she’s rewarded with a flurry of happy electronic melodies.

New graduate Ryan Mather 15 ID dreamed up My Body Band, a game that helps children learn anatomical terms through the joy of movement, in last fall’s Industrial Design studio Design for Play. Erik Lack 15 ID and Ben Basseches – a recent Brown graduate who majored in Mechanical Engineering – helped rig the suit with speakers, flex sensors and an Arduino circuit board programmed to sense the slightest movement.

“After playing in the suit for under an hour, Petra knew all of her basic muscle groups,” notes Mather. “It was amazing to use technology to create a fun, individualized learning environment for kids. It’s incredibly gratifying to be a part of that process.”

Once the New York-based company littleBits, which manufactures DIY electronics kits, got a look at Mather’s anatomy game and the rest of his portfolio, the CEO offered him a job working on a slew of projects. Many will draw on the broad critical thinking abilities he honed at RISD, along with his expertise in product design, IU/UX and rapid prototyping, among other skills.

“I’ll be wearing many hats as an interdisciplinary thinker – which is exactly what I had hoped to do after leaving the RISD nest,” Mather says. “I’ll get the chance to collaborate and problem-solve every day in a professional environment. What could be better than that?”

The articulate new grad certainly has the energy, enthusiasm and mental agility for a fast-paced, tech-oriented gig. As a sophomore, he led the RISD STEAM group, a student organization dedicated to proving the importance of integrating art and design into the national focus on STEM education (science, technology, engineering, math). As president of the group, Mather facilitated a number of stimulating workshops in which students from RISD, MIT and Brown worked together to design and build futuristic devices that helped them learn about electronics, digital fabrication and programming.

For instance, in Human + Computer – a four-week RISD STEAM series focused on trans-humanism – Mather designed a “smart scarf” that allows parents to monitor their child’s location, heart rate and temperature. Other students created a mouth puppet that “speaks” phonemes when it’s squeezed or users blow into it, along with an open-source electronics prototyping platform to rig a robotic arm that connects to a wireless remote control.

“Looking back, my involvement in extracurricular activities was absolutely essential to my development as both a leader and a designer,” says Mather. “Companies understand that good design requires an intimate understanding of people and social relationships. And they want people who work well in teams.”

Over the summer, Mather will also be finalizing All Ears, a smartphone app that encourages native speakers to become better teachers of their own languages by correcting pronunciation foibles. He received a small grant from RISD E’Ship – a student organization that fosters entrepreneurship – to develop the app with Ryan Ngoy, a Brown student majoring in Computer Science.

“The visual design [for the app] is almost done,” Mather explains. “We’re now in the process of figuring out how to make an intuitive interface. It’ll be interesting to see how people respond to it. We think it’s something really special.”

While Mather is excited about contributing to other cool projects once he gets going at littleBits, he’s still experiencing emotional pangs about graduating. “The number one thing I love about RISD is how you can walk up to pretty much anyone – at lunch, dinner or in between classes – and have a meaningful discussion about your work, or life. I’ll miss those interactions.”

–Abigail Crocker

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