But in recent months, before everything got turned upside-down, two groups of Luddy students hit the road to discover how technology is making an impact in the real world.
One class headed to Walt Disney World for a unique opportunity to see how the Magic Kingdom uses both cutting-edge tech and older systems to bring the impossible to life. Another class spent the last days of 2019 and the early days of 2020 in India to explore how technology is impacting life in another culture.
The Luddy School is dedicated to creating experiences in the future for its students to experience how technology is shaping our world, but for the short term, those trips are on pause. But the recent travels of classes away from Bloomington were enlightening for Luddy students and brought what they are studying in classrooms to life.
Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, is all about magic.
Then again, it can also be a lot of fun to find out how they do the tricks.
A group of 13 students from the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering recently took a trip to the Magic Kingdom to learn about how Disney uses technology to bring their attractions to life and mold the experiences of their patrons. The trip was part of a class taught by Luddy lecturer Jennifer Terrell, a long-time Disney aficionado who has been impressed with the way the entertainment juggernaut encapsulates so many aspects of informatics and computer science.
“They somehow incorporate every single element of the fields into their parks,” Terrell said. “There is the storytelling, but they also work with a ton of different kinds of information systems from the use of their RFID tags in their Magic bands to thinking about big data analysis to network science and more. Disney World in Florida is not only a good subject to study, but it’s also a good field site for students to get hands-on experience in thinking through what these technologies look like when they’re incorporated into an overall experience for someone in the theme park.”
Students first studied the Disney experience in the classroom, including the history of the theme parks and the initial vision Walt Disney had for how visitors would perceive the parks. Using technology, Disney designers have worked through the decades to make visitors feel like they weren’t riding an attraction but rather an interactive part of it.
“We talked a lot about the use of some very broad categories of technology, such as light and sound and water, and we analyzed the rides and how those technologies were used to shape a visitor’s experience,” Terrell said. “When a park guest goes through their experience of being at Disney World, what is Disney teaching them that is valuable and important? What cultural values are Disney teaching through these experiences? We took a look at Disney as a field site to understand technology’s role in the construction of our culture.”
As a final project, students were asked to analyze YouTube videos of a ride or attraction and try to identify the values Disney was teaching. Then, when they were on-site at Disney World, they were asked to investigate the same ride or show to see how that analysis changed when they experienced it in real life.
“Before visiting, Disney was just a beautiful theme park that I loved,” said informatics sophomore Jennifer Gonzalez. “Going into it this time around with everything I had learned in class, I realized how Disney used different techniques to tell a story. More importantly, how they used technology to educate the public.”
The class also took part in Disney’s youth education series, which offers a slate of workshops that provides a background in both the Disney way of doing things and allows a back-stage look at some of the attractions.
“We participated in a course called ‘Disney’s Approach to Leadership and Teamwork,’ which taught us about teamwork and how to define roles and teams,” Terrell said. “Experiencing formal teamwork training was a great supplement to the course, and that workshop actually took place in an executive meeting room, which is under a large aquarium. So, while the workshop was being conducted, we were distracted by sea turtles and fish and sharks and divers. That was an amazing setting.”
Another workshop, “The Evolution of Technology,” was primarily designed for middle school and early high school students, but the Luddy students benefitted from seeing how Disney presents science and technology to younger people. The class included visits to three rides in the Epcot theme park prior to the park opening to the public, allowing students a different perspective than they normally would get if the rides were more crowded.
Finally, the group enjoyed a seven-hour backstage tour of the technology at Disney World.
“We started in Epcot, and we got to go backstage under one of the attractions that tells the story of the founding of the United States,” Terrell said. “The attraction opened in 1982, and they’re still using a mainframe and software from 1982. It was absolutely fascinating to see how they operate these animatronics on a working mainframe from the early 1980s, which isn’t something you expect to see and that is so rare to experience. We got to see costuming and animatronics that were partially disassembled, and it was a great look at the different technologies that go into such an amazing park.”
Chloe Tominac, a junior in informatics, was stunned by the backstage tour.
“You expect Disney to be updated with all the newest technologies, and in many cases, they are,” Tominac said. “But it was interesting to see how much maintenance they have to do on the American Adventure ride to keep it in working condition. You don’t see a lot of operating systems that haven’t been updated.”
The tour also allowed the students to look beyond the magic of their environment.
“The behind-the-scenes tour reminded me that Disney is still a multi-billion dollar company,” said Kassidy Clines, a sophomore in informatics. “When visiting the parks, you can easily get caught up with everything, and you forget you're at a theme park owned by this giant company. By going behind the scenes to locations like maintenance, costuming, and laundry services, you're reminded where you are.”
The workshops triggered a lot of discussion about Disney and its inner workings.
“I wanted them to understand that it’s possible and even encouraged to love something and critique it at the same time,” Terrell said. “We were critical of Disney, but we also loved it. And that’s the orientation I want them to have toward technology. I don’t want them to think they can’t critique something, and I don’t want them to purely celebrate it. I hope they came away with an experience of wrestling with feeling simultaneously amazed by the things that Disney is pulling off and recognizing the places where we do need to be critical and do need to think carefully. I hope they came away with a deeper familiarity of sitting with that discomfort.”
Nina Updike, a junior in informatics, learned that very lesson.
“I learned to not be afraid of analyzing a company I often find to be perfect,” Updike said. “This is important as the world is constantly changing, so it is only natural Disney has flaws with how their company works. I used to hesitate to analyze Disney, but the trip has made me appreciate them more as I have seen many changes they have made to better their relationships with their audiences.”
The trip was more than just educational. Multiple students on the trip have been contacted by recruiters from Disney, and Terrell hopes a partnership between Luddy and Disney can be established.
“We’re right at the beginning of this relationship,” Terrell said. “Right now, we’re working strengthening those relationships. Disney is a very large organization, so the collaboration is still to come. We’re also looking at possibilities to expand beyond Disney because there is so much that can be learned through these kinds of real-world experiences that are a little beyond what most students learn in a classroom.”
Just a few weeks earlier, a different group of Luddy students traveled halfway around the globe to experience a different culture and learn about how the technology sector works outside the United States.
Eight students from the Department of Informatics and one from the Department of Computer Science traveled to Bangalore, India, in late December-early January as part of Luddy’s Global Information Technology and Development (GLOBiD) India course. The trip was the second leg in a two-part class that saw the first eight weeks of the course focus on learning about India in Bloomington before experiencing all Bangalore had to offer during the trip.
“The students really got an appreciation for the different ways people live and exist in different parts of the world,” said Logan Paul, a lecturer at Luddy who was one of the co-instructors of the class. “They were able to see some similarities between how we interact with each other and how Indian people interact. The city might be different, and the street might be different, but the interactions are the same.”
The first half of the 12-day trip was spent sightseeing and visiting various cultural locations, such as temples, and bus tours provided expert guidance as the students explored. The second half of the trip was spent touring the offices of Infosys, a global leader in digital services and consulting, and visiting local universities, including the Indian Institute of Information Technologies.
The group discovered a different work and educational culture, as well as a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship.
“A lot of companies try to build campuses—essentially like American universities—where you go to work, and they have everything there you need,” Paul said. “There is a gym, childcare, food… everything you need to keep you happy while you’re on the job. Some American companies do similar things, but it’s more prevalent in India. It also showed how advanced India is in terms of technology.”
The group stayed in Electronic City, the information technology hub and industrial park just outside Bangalore. The suburb features security and traffic cameras, and smart traffic lights, and during a visit to the management center, students were shown how the systems work and how researchers are using technology to try to solve some of the issues facing urban areas.
“The people of Electronic City have this innate desire to be successful and self-reliant, something which I think is not completely lost to those of us fortunate enough to live in a mature economic climate,” said Tyler Keith, a senior. “I was also able to gain a deep understanding of the technological market in India and, more importantly, a better look into the mindset of someone operating in that market.”
For most of the students, the trip was their first opportunity to travel to another country.
“As someone who has never traveled internationally before, I gained a lot from this experience - from understanding flights to being aware of potential animal threats—such as cobras and monkeys—to visiting various temples,” said JeVante Qaiyim, a sophomore in computer science. “This trip has made me want to continue traveling. I finally have a perspective on international travel, and it has influenced me to want to continue exploring different places so that I can learn about people, cultures, and businesses.”
Kaitlyn Owens, one of the instructors for the class, was pleased with how the group of students embraced all the trip had to offer.
“When travelling abroad, even small, everyday things can be a learning opportunity,” Owens said. “From using the Uber app to book a tuk tuk (a motorized, three-wheel rickshaw) to purchasing street food, our students were open to trying new things. More than just a better understanding of Indian culture and the Indian tech scene, I hope our students take away a more global perspective for their lives. The ability to think cross-culturally will benefit them inside the classroom, in the workplace, and in their day-to-day lives as global citizens. Tech is a global industry, and having an understanding of India’s role in the market is a competitive advantage for Luddy students.”
The trip reached its ultimate goal of broadening the perspectives of the students.
“I was extremely impressed by the hospitality of the people we met in India,” said Quinton Lord, a senior. “Going forward, I will be a lot more focused on global perspectives when thinking about informatics as a whole. Often times I will look at different local perspectives from subsets of people when considering the social impact of something, such as a phone app, but after the India trip, I now know that subsets of users aren't the same across the world, and that I must expand my perspective when thinking about the social impact of technology in general.”
Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering resources and social media channels