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Edith Ackermann, developmental psychologist and learning researcher, dies at 70

The former MIT Media Lab faculty member explored the intersections of play, learning, design, and technology.

Edith Ackermann, who was a professor at the MIT Media Lab from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Dec. 24. She was 70.

Swiss-born Ackermann earned all her degrees from the University of Geneva, Switzerland. She earned a bachelor's degree in experimental psychology in 1969, two master's degrees in developmental psychology and clinical psychology in 1970, and a PhD in developmental psychology in 1981.

At the University of Geneva, she was part of an interdisciplinary research team under the direction of Jean Piaget, the Swiss developmental psychologist renowned for his pioneering work in child development. Ackermann considered Piaget a "hero" in her field. In a list of her greatest influences, Ackermann also included Maria Montessori, a renowned Italian physician and educator, as well as two founding faculty members of the Media Lab: Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert. It was the opportunity to work with Papert that drew Ackermann to the Media Lab in 1985, when she joined his Epistemology and Learning Group. There, Ackermann focused on technological tools for learning and emerging literacies.

On her website, Ackermann described her approach to education research: "I team up with partners from varying backgrounds to help shape the future of play and learning in a digital world. I study how people use place, relate to others, and treat things to find their ways — and voices — in an ever-changing world." Mitchel Resnick, the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research who worked with Ackermann in Papert’s group, says his late colleague "brought a joyful energy, probing questions, and fresh ideas to every conversation. She will be deeply missed."

Ackermann’s relationship with the Media Lab extended well beyond her time on its faculty. Resnick, now head of the Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group, says that Ackermann continued "as a friend, collaborator, and advisor to people throughout the Media Lab community, serving on many general-exam and dissertation committees, and joining many Media Lab conversations and symposia, including a recent discussion about cybernetics."

In addition to her ongoing affiliation as a visiting scientist at the Media Lab, Ackermann in recent years was a research affiliate at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, a visiting senior researcher for the LEGO Foundation, a senior research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, an honorary professor of developmental psychology at the University of Aix-Marseille, France, and a visiting professor at the University of Siena, Italy. She has been honored with accolades throughout her career, most recently in October 2016, when she received a lifetime achievement award at the FabLearn Conference at Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Ackermann believed that her work was itself an act of continuous self-education. As she wrote on her Media Lab web page: "When it comes to learning and creative uses of technologies, children have more to teach adults than adults to children! When it comes to innovating for others, don’t guess what they want or do what they say: co-create what they — and you — will love, once it is there!"

Originally published by MIT Media Lab December 28, 2016 for MIT News.