Nippert-Eng's work with gorillas earns honors
Gorillas Up Close
When Christena Nippert-Eng decided to write a book about her friends, she knew they would never read it or understand that they were now the central characters in what would become an award-winning book.
Then again, Nippert-Eng wasn’t exactly writing the book for them.
Nippert-Eng, a professor of informatics and the director of the Computing, Culture, and Society track in the Ph.D. program at the School of Informatics and Computing, wrote “Gorillas Up Close” with some of her former students. It is a children’s nonfiction book designed to take readers ages 8-12 into the world of gorillas. The book, which was named one of Booklist’s top 30 books to create Lasting Connections for young readers in 2016 and is part of the International Literacy Association Children’s Choices 2017 reading list, explores the social structure and other aspects of western lowland gorillas using the example of the gorillas at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. “Gorillas Up Close” shows how captive gorillas’ lives are similar to and different from those of wild gorillas.
Nippert-Eng began working with the gorillas at the Lincoln Park Zoo when she was teaching a course on ethnographic observation as an assistant professor of sociology at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. The class observed the gorillas and helped design user-centered objects and habitat features that would benefit both the gorillas and the keepers. The bonds formed with the gorillas made them the perfect subjects for a book.
“I know these gorillas,” Nippert-Eng says. “They’re like friends, and who wouldn’t want to write about their friends?”
Using a combination of stunning photos and text written at a seventh-grade level, Nippert-Eng and her students aimed to present a compelling and visual story that would resonate with younger readers.
“We wanted to produce a book that would really appeal to the reading-resistant, the reading challenged, or the English-challenged individual,” Nippert-Eng says. “There are small chapters, lots of photos. Everything is designed to be informative but short so it didn’t feel overwhelming. There’s room in science for everyone.
“I’m excited by the opportunity to teach younger students as well as the broader public about the importance of social structure and about user-centered design. Most of our students at IU or around the world never hear about such things until they’re already in college. If we can push awareness of the importance of social structure, whether it’s for humans or another species, we can show how important it is to design around those things.”
But as the humans learn about the social behavior of the animals, the animals can teach humans some lessons as well.
“When you observe animals who are far away from what we think of as technology’s users, it makes you aware of all the assumptions that you’re making about your user,” Nippert-Eng says. “We’re animals, too. Studying how non-human animals interface with objects allows us to create a better sense of understanding and empathy with all users.”
More importantly, working with gorillas could help develop better technology for humans.
“Whatever you do with technology, best practices say it should fit into what it means to be human and what makes us human,” Nippert-Eng says. “Technologies that fail to understand and build on what it means to be human are going to be failed technologies. Studying non-human animals and realizing how little you might know about what it means to be human – that’s gold, from an educational perspective.”
Her work with the gorillas continues to energize her research. Including designing for nonhuman users.
“I think ‘Gorillas Up Close’ in part shows my real appreciation for that species,” Nippert-Eng says. “I started studying gorillas to understand people, but my experience says that anytime you study anybody, you quickly begin to appreciate them for exactly who they are instead of what they represent. The more I study them, the more fascinated I get.”
Her next book will skew even younger. “What Is Baby Gorilla Doing?” is a board book for pre-readers that will be released in mid-June, and Nippert-Eng hopes to plant the seeds of appreciation for an even younger audience while nurturing an even earlier love of science – and gorillas.
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