Interview with Lucas Steuber of Portland Language Lab

Interview with Lucas Steuber of Portland Language Lab

Lucas Steuber is a Speech Language Pathologist working in Portland, Oregon. He is also the founder of Portland Language Lab, a collaborative think tank composed of educators, engineers, and Makers of all walks of life.  He is passionate about the potential for low-cost, customized assistive technology and environmental modifications that allow anyone to communication effectively at any stage of life or ability. He and his collaborators are stretching the boundaries of the use of edtech in special ed. I had the good fortune to speak with him at the end of May. For an example of the ad hoc technology he uses to encourage social interaction, take a look at the video below.

Sam: What initially made you interested in utilizing technology in your practice?

Lucas: I remember in elementary school we didn’t really have any technology in the classroom, or if we did it’d be the old reel-to-reel projection systems. I remember thinking that was pretty cool, and then later we actually had sort of structured activities around technology, you know even if it was Where in the World is Carmen San Diego and these sorts of things.  I always sort of gravitated towards those activities. That form of media was really engaging for me and  it was a way that I felt I could have some autonomy in my education as opposed to more traditional formats like being given worksheets. The computer time really felt like more of opportunity to just sort of sit and explore. As I’ve moved into being an educator, a lot of those same attitudes remain with me. Particularly in the realm of speech pathology and special education we’re almost experiencing the same type of renaissance technologically as when I was a part of general education in the 80s. We’re suddenly seeing not only the utility of technology in special education but also decrease in costs, so the barrier for entry is getting a lot lower for these kids and families, which is great.

Sam: How do you find students responding to technology in education?

Lucas: So much of this technology is becoming more engaging for kids.  And that’s not really just kids on the spectrum, that’s kids in general. The other piece that I’m really passionate about, and I know you are too is that to whatever extent we can orient our therapy around something that’s interesting or engaging for kids, we should. I think a lot of people start with whatever the learning or intervention objective that they want to accomplish and then sort of inject whatever fun animations and materials they’re able to. I think that properly, we should sort of be thinking about it in the opposite order. You know, what is the identity of this child? What are their preferences? And once we complete that picture, then we can start talking about how we can leverage that to fill the need they have.

Sam: One aspect of Applied Behavior Analysis is really understanding what motivates the learner. So we’ll do a formalized preference assessment when we first start working with a child to understand the toys, books, activities, and other things that are interesting for the kid. And then over the course of our relationship with that child, we continually assess preferences informally to adjust and keep the learner motivated. It seems that has been important in your own practice, as well.

Lucas: There’s this prevailing attitude, and I know not everyone shares it, but people tend to think that education or intervention shouldn’t be fun. You know, that it should be “work.” That’s terrible. Why aren’t we even conflating those two things? When we’re talking

Lucas Steuber

Lucas Steuber

about a six year old or an eight year old with disabilities we need to make it fun or else the message won’t be engaging. You know the other piece that I’ve been thinking about is providing access to play and “mischief” for lack of a better term, to kids that maybe are either hypersensitive or who just simply don’t have the motor access to those kind of activities. Of course then without that access we start to see behaviors from these kids that are in a chair or whatever else because that’s the only means by which they have to communicate or to refuse. You know if we can shape that behavior and give them a way, even on an app, to make their rooms dirty, you know, play in the mud; this is all stuff that typically developing kids get to do.

Sam: One of the things you’ve used with your students is Makey Makey. Can you explain what that is and how you’ve used it?

Lucas: Makey Makes is essentially an arduino board, which is basically a circuit that allows the outside wolrd, for lack of a better term, to interface with a computer system.  The Makey Makey happens to be a very low cost and very simple and easy-to-understand version of that technology, which makes it ideal for our purposes, particularly in the classroom when we’re trying out devices. So we can do really complex things with Makey Makey and we can also do really simple things.

I was able to work recently with a highly impacted student who had some vision and motor issues as a result of a brain tumor. One of the things I was able to do with Makey Makey was just set up these play dough bongos and see if he could sort of figure out not only the intentionality of that experience but also do the fine motor things and do the visual things that are necessary for him to access it. In the past that would have taken a lot of money, time, specialists, and a whole bunch of expensive hardware, so that’s a barrier there that’s really easy to overcome now.

On the other end, you can make all these really fun things that are still incentives but may be more complicated. For a special needs carnival that happened on the 7th, I set up a huge blanket fort, but inside of it it’s made out of  PVC pipes that were wrapped with aluminum tape, so there’s sort of a conductive base to it. So any kid who can crawl into this thing had an interactive, sensory experience where there were different colored tubes, black lights, glow in the dark bugs, and will be allowed to make different sounds and lights and potentially play a video and chimes and whatever else. Which is just fun! We already have those types of experience in some of these spectrum classrooms where there will be sensory booths for the kids and some of that equipment is really expensive. So if we can not only lower the cost of that equipment but also provide a customized experience, it’s going to be more effective for everyone.

Sam: One of the things I’m hearing from you, and seems to be just a general thesis of how you work, is not using technology just to remove barriers to language or academics, but also to remove barriers just to childhood fun. And that’s not a way we think about it as professionals. We’re supposed to be thinking about what’s on the IEP instead of how can we make this child have the access to a typical childhood experience beyond just the classroom.

Lucas: You know, absolutely. I work in a school district and even when I have to write my goals around Common Core Standards, which is fine, there’s a lot great thing there that we really should harness and use for academics, but it really doesn’t access this whole other piece. It’s the play, the context of being at home, it’s the sort of social interactive and effective element of learning that I know constitutes a heck of a lot more of my identity than, you know, whether or not I can do trigonometry.

That’s a big gap. A lot of kids are getting services that are well-intentioned and may be fantastic in the school and then maybe the get some services from a private provider or at the hospital seven times a year because their insurance sucks and then in the interim the family either doesn’t really know what is going on, especially with a new diagnosis, or isn’t really engaged with what’s going on, or, god forbid, is actively excluded from services for financial or legal reasons. So that’s what the initial goal of Language Lab was when we started it: to sort of occupy the niche of after school. What do we do in that gap? We can do this push-in piece where we educate the parents and we educate the family and we do environmental modification and all this other stuff that maybe isn’t being addressed and figure out how we can reinforce the goals that are being worked on during the day. That naturally evolved into the technology and ad hoc stuff and the iOS development just because it’s all kind of the logical next step.

Sam: Can you talk about the structure of the Portland Language Lab? What does that actually look like at this point in time?

Lucas: I was a lot more casual about it not too long ago but we had such an incredible surge of traditional media attention and social media and everything else with the few apps that we have out. So that is what I perceive as sort of Phase I of this, is the iOS development and demonstrating and advocating for the ad hoc assistive technology side of things. We’re also generally getting a lot of ideas out there in the form of editorials for technology, for play therapy, for child-directed learning; all these things that we’re passionate about. In the pretty short term I’d like to actually have a space, maybe this time next year we’ll have a sensory gym for kids and do some larger scale interventions like that.

Sam: You have one video about Mario Brothers, and you have several kids playing it, using Makey Makey in the same construction you were talking about before with the play dough. When you’re putting something together like that, do you have a specific process for creating something like that? How do you start when you’re thinking about what you’re going to make? (To see video of this Social/Collaboration Gaming Demonstration, click here.)

Lucas: The first thing I do is that I tend to sort of gravitate towards something that I think is going to be easy for the kids. And there are some concerns they are around sort of the motor and visual complexity of what I can use. Especially when I’m at an event where I might have a wide range of different abilities that are trying to use it.

I’ve had Minecraft on the brain a lot recently because that’s what all the kids I’m working with are talking about. And I’d love to figure out what sort of a collaborative interface for Minecraft, but I’m still kind of brainstorming that. Mario ended up being a really good choice because it’s something that sort of culturally relevant for multiple generations but still very much on the minds of younger kids and the controls are simplistic enough that I could leverage them to work on the goal that I was explicitly working on for those events and with the kids. (Click here to see Speechcraft, which Portland Language Labs is currently working on with Minecraft materials.) 

I’m thinking about those kids, or ones that maybe are fine in terms of fine motor and these other things, but have goals around social interaction and negotiation and this whole Theory of Mind piece of perspective taking. So what I’ve been doing is trying to deliberately pair up kids that don’t understand each other, and have them work on activities like this. I find that it’s been getting huge results. I have kids that didn’t want to talk to each other and weren’t in the same social circles and now are eating together at lunch because they were engaged with this stuff.

I also have had some great success with children and parents doing that which is one of the reasons I really like Mario, because again it’s multi-generational and a lot of parents are really at a loss for how to have interactions with their kids of a certain age on the spectrum. There can be a sort of shared activity where they have to engage with each other in an active way. I see a lot of parents that will use board games with their kids but that can just end up sort of being parallel play. You know, they aren’t really engaging with each other in any meaningful sense with some board games.

Sam: In terms of technology, what are you excited about exploring next with your students?

Lucas: You know I’m really curious to see what’s on the horizon. I keep on reaching this point where I think the multitouch interface in the forms of iPads and Android is reaching the limit of technical potential and then I keep being proven wrong so you know I guess I’ll be curious to see where that medium takes us.

Sam: What caught my attention on your website initially was the fact that it really created a lot of opportunities for interaction. My focus is on games and technology, and I separate them out on my website where there are certain games that I say this is a good peer play game, and I actually single them out because so many of them are just like you said, you end up in parallel play or the wait time between turns becomes aversive for your students. And then, even the technology, I love the iPad but it doesn’t, most things don’t actually create opportunities for interaction. Then I see something like the app SpaceTeam, which isn’t necessarily great for my students, but it has an interesting format for interaction that I think could be incredibly useful with out population of students.

Lucas: I know that there are some of more traditional games, like Call of Duty or Battlefield, for the big Xbox fans where there’s one person who takes the role of mission commander and makes the orders and everyone else is supposed to be on the ground executing them. That’s the sort of model I’ve been thinking about. I don’t think that those games are developmentally appropriate for a lot of these kids we’re working for, but the format is interesting. I actually have been surprised, I had an 8-year-old girl the other day and I asked her what kinds of games she plays and she said “Call of Duty.” I was like “Whoa!”

I’m thinking a lot about the social interaction piece. It’s typical of a lot of tech where you might see an emotion app and it might show a picture of a baby crying and ask “what’s the emotion that you see here?” I think that’s kind of dumb. It’s not personal to the child, and it’s not making use of the technology in a way that actually takes advantage of the medium. So I’ve been thinking about ways to depict that. I’ve got some social stuff in the pipeline but I’d like to be a little more innovative.

Sam: If someone is brand new to technology and they’re in special education in one form or another, do you have advice that you would give to someone who’s just trying out technology as a part of their practice?

Lucas: The first thing is just play around. Like before you even get advice from anybody, I would just sort of look at what’s there. Familiarize yourself with the different devices, I mean it’s just going into a Windows or going to an Apple store and messing around and asking questions. That’s the very introductory level for technology. The next step up would be to actually look at some of the stuff that’s in the app store and sort of see how that aligns with your beliefs pedagogically and with what you’ve been taught. You know and step three would be soliciting the help of other people who maybe do specialize in that. And really the way to get involved with that is really the online resources like your site, and there are a lot of other folks who are doing that stuff. We’re doing a little bit of reviewing but that’s not really our primary goal. But the one thing that we want to do with future apps that we haven’t started doing yet is that we want to have the app and then along with the app release I’d like to have an explanation of why we built the app and then a whole bunch of PDFs you can download that are potential curriculum ideas. (Since the interview, Portland Language Lab has started posting “App Goals” to their site, which you can view here.)

That’s another piece that I think is absent. They’ll say, “hey, we made an app with a bunch of baby faces. Here.” There’s this question lingering about “why.” What are you trying to address here? Where is the evidence that supports that this is going to be in any way meaningful to the kid you’re working for? So I think that’s another challenge for the industry moving forward is trying to move eventually from this stage of experimentation and get to a point where we’re integrating traditional clinical evidence with what we’re doing with technology. It’s started, but we’re not there yet.

I want to thank Lucas  for taking an hour of his time to speak with me. If you’d like to see more of his work, you can go to his website: You can also follow him on Facebook by clicking here

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