Stanford students create apps to tackle learning challenges

Students in the Learning, Design, and Technology program at the Graduate School of Education analyze learning problems and then design solutions in yearlong master's projects.

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Video by Kurt Hickman

Graduate School of Education students describe how they combine technology with learning skills.

Students in Stanford’s Learning, Design, and Technology program have applied modern technology to answer three questions faced by many parents and teachers: how to improve childhood eating habits, group project productivity and autistic social-emotional skills.

In the LDT program at the Graduate School of Education, students spend a year learning how they can use technology and better design to enhance the learning process. For these master’s projects, each student turns to a problem.

“They research that problem or that challenge, they understand those learners deeply and the challenges they face, in school or out. And then they design something to meet that challenge,” said program director Karin Forssell.

LDT student Karen Wang explained, “The goal of the project is really to combine your passion with the whole skillset learned in the LDT year.”

Students will present their work July 31 at the LDT Expo, the culmination of a year of “learning about learning,” Forssell said.

Nomster Chef

With a background in TV production, most recently for the preschool math show Team Umizoomi, Ashley Moulton pursued her LDT degree to learn about the educational side of children’s television. She designed an iPad app, Nomster Chef, that helps parents and preschoolers cook together and establish healthy eating habits during early childhood. “Children are more likely to try food that they’ve helped cook,” Moulton said.

Guided by visual, step-by-step recipes designed for kid-friendly meals, they get to chop ingredients by themselves, and maybe take a taste while cooking.

Two of the “most hated vegetables” became Moulton’s Star Vegetables: mushrooms and tomatoes. She featured the Star Vegetables in three recipes that she tested with four families using a prototype of the app.

Before cooking, children receive an educational video about a food they’ll be working with – for example, a video on how mushrooms grow. The app also incorporates food information in the recipe steps, like the fact that tomatoes are actually a fruit. 

“There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to healthy eating habits,” Moulton said. “For example, many parents will tell their children, ‘Make sure you clean your plate.’ But that’s actually bad because it teaches you to ignore your natural hunger cues.”

In her research on nutrition and development of eating habits, Moulton learned that children form their lifelong eating preferences between the ages of 2 and 5. Therefore, “The preschool age is the window to influence their eating habits to set them up for health later in life,” she said.

After user-testing the app prototype, “I heard from parents that they noticed differences in how their kids are eating,” Moulton said. The app also kept kids engaged throughout the cooking process.


In another project, Jesse Harris and Laura Pickel confronted the challenges of group work in ToGetThere, an online source for activities designed to help teachers and students prepare for successful collaboration. As teachers and students themselves, Harris and Pickel noticed that teachers often do not think about what it means to put students into groups.

“It’s like building a building,” Pickel said. “Scaffolding is providing the support you would need to learn.”

“We’re pretty much designing to think,” Harris said. “It’s not so much a concrete product, but a resource.” 


In a third project, Karen Wang designed and coded an iPad app, FeelingTalk, that teaches children with autism to recognize and understand emotions.

Many autistic children struggle with interpreting facial expressions, making it difficult to build social-emotional skills and have meaningful interactions with others. However, they are attentive to detail and very good at systemizing, Wang said, which is why she designed an app that teaches emotion through “contrasting cases.”

“The idea of contrasting cases is very much like wine tasting,” Wang said. “By comparing a couple of very close cases, we’re helping children identify the key features in each emotion that they may otherwise overlook.”

For example, in the first level of FeelingTalk, kids choose the one face that’s different (a sad face) from the three happy faces on the screen. The app will then label the different face “sad.”

“My app will be utilizing learning mechanics that directly work with the autistic brain to help them work on something that they’re having difficulty with,” Wang said. “By leveraging something they’re good at, we’re going to teach them to get comfortable looking at people’s faces, examining the key features, and eventually understanding emotions.”

FeelingTalk also gives parents and autistic children a platform to have a dialogue on feelings and to practice social-emotional skills together.

Her original motivation for creating FeelingTalk was to help autistic children –including her own son ­– better understand their parents’ emotions. That is why, in the third level of the game, parents can upload pictures of their own faces to be used in place of the illustrated faces.

“I want [my son] to understand when I’m feeling sad or angry, but, most importantly, to know that I’m so happy with the progress he’s making every single day,” Wang said.

Wang primarily tested FeelingTalk with her son, but also plans to do another round of testing at Open Mind School in Redwood City, and more testing with a broader community once coding is complete. She said she eventually hopes to make FeelingTalk available in the App Store.

“That’s the beauty of Expo,” Harris said. “You get to share and ask questions. Part of Expo is to find out where [your project] should go.”

The aim of the master’s projects is not to change what is already effective in education, Forssell said, but to augment what is possible. “There is so much opportunity and need in the education space,” she said. “The number of people who need to learn things is so large that even if we solve one small problem for one subset of the people, we have a huge number of people who could be impacted by those solutions.”

Eighteen projects will be presented in the annual Learning, Design and Technology program’s annual exposition, to be held July 31 in the CERAS building atrium from 4 p.m. to 6:30.  Over the last 18 years, ideas showcased at LDT have become popular apps, classroom teaching aides, websites and educational toys. Members of the public are welcome to attend.

Christina Dong is an intern at the Stanford News Service.

Media Contacts

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,