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Improving early childhood classrooms fuels PhD student Rudy Dieudonne

Story by Maddie Kranz x’24, a UW–Madison student studying Community & Nonprofit Leadership and Art History

A man smiling, with low-cut black hair, wearing a grey jacket, white shirt, and off-white pants.
Rudy Dieudonne, a doctoral candidate in the Human Ecology PhD – Design Studies program

Working across disciplines in the School of Human Ecology, Rudy Dieudonne, a doctoral candidate in the Human Ecology PhD – Design Studies program, is improving learning environments for young children with autism. His innovative work and compelling presentation made waves at the Three Minute Thesis competition, an international contest for graduate students to practice concisely communicating their research with a broader audience in under three minutes. Of the 11 finalists at UW–Madison, Dieudonne won both the First Place and People’s Choice Awards.

“People typically don’t understand why researchers decide to do their research and try to solve a specific problem,” Diuedonne said. “I used the Three Minute Thesis competition as an opportunity to explain why I am passionate about my research and improving the educational experiences of children within classrooms.”

Making classrooms accessible

Within Dieudonne’s research, he analyzes the ways in which classroom lighting and noise impact students with autism. His work draws from studies of design, child development, physiology, and more.

The current classroom environment is not appropriate for students with sensory sensitivities. Dieudonne worked with the School of Human Ecology’s Child Development Lab — a teaching and research early childhood preschool — to monitor children’s heart rates, stress levels and behavioral reactions as he adjusted the lighting and noise levels in the classroom. As the levels increased, so did the students’ physical and physiological reactions.

“What I needed was power, and that’s what the results of this research provides,” Dieudonne said in his Three Minute Thesis presentation. “The power to help our government revise classroom design standards across this country, and the power to defend students with autism, as well as their constitutional rights to education.”

Making classrooms accessible for preschoolers with autism is a difficult task, but Dieudonne says that some of the solutions are not as complex as some may believe.

“It can be something very simple, like putting a light on a dimmer switch,” Dieudonne said. “By doing this, any person with sensory sensitivities can center the room and adjust the lighting to their specific needs.”

For noise, classrooms could have some sound-masking machines — like the small devices often found in doctors’ offices that produce ambient noise to muffle private conversations — in strategic locations to reduce the amount of noise while still allowing the teacher’s voice to be heard. By adding this ambient sound, any distractions from other students will be less noticeable. Individuals in the classroom could turn up the volume if they are more sensitive to noise or lower it if they are less sensitive.

A black-and-white graphic showing preschoolers in a classroom with bright lights and varying audio waves overhead.
Dieudonne used this image in his Three Minute Thesis presentation to demonstrate how light and sound impact preschoolers in the classroom

These proposed changes are part of universal design, a strategy used by designers of all disciplines to ensure that individuals with or without disabilities can use a space or object with few to no adaptations. Dieudonne learned more about universal design in his doctoral coursework, where he explored human ecology theories and the ways in which society is a large system composed of networked interactions between people and their environment.

Finding his way to Human Ecology

Dieudonne’s love for designing adaptable classrooms comes from a project he worked on as an Associate Designer before coming to the School of Human Ecology. A client commissioned the firm he was working for to redesign their special education classrooms, but neither he nor his colleagues had any experience in what works best for students with disabilities. Dieudonne knew that he wanted to go back to school for his PhD, but he was not sure what he wanted to research.

“I’m a big proponent of education, and so knowing that there’s kids who experience discomfort because of the classroom environment… that really stuck with me,” Dieudonne said.

Rudy Dieudonne stands on a stage and speaks to an audience
Rudy Dieudonne presented at UW–Madison’s Three Minute Thesis competition, where he won First Place and People’s Choice | Photo by Todd Brown/Media Solutions for the UW–Madison Graduate School

While applying for PhD programs, Diedudonne was motivated by his architectural career and decided to research the effects classroom design has on children with disabilities. However, he was also concerned that his lack of experience of working with children would negatively impact his chances of being accepted. All of his worries subsided when he interviewed with the School of Human Ecology. It was at that moment that Dieudonne realized that his research was, in fact, possible.

“The [Human Ecology PhD – Design Studies program] committee said, ‘Well, we’d like to accept you, and this is someone here within the School of Human Ecology who can speak with you. She works with students with autism,’” Dieudonne said.

That person was Sigan Hartley, 100 Women Distinguished Chair in Human Ecology and professor of Human Development & Family Studies (HDFS). Hartley runs the Hartley Lab at the Waisman Center and has assisted Dieudonne in developing his classroom design research. She also connected him with Amy Wagner, the director of the Child Development Lab (CDL).

“A lot of people were willing to help, because they were passionate about helping children, too,” Dieudonne said. “They saw the benefit of this research and what this research could do for many people.”

Dieudonne now works with the Child Development Lab and other Human Ecology partners to further his research, and as the winner of UW–Madison’s competition, he represented the university at the regional Three Minute Thesis competition. He once again had only three minutes to present his research to an even broader audience and placed in the top ten of presenters. The School of Human Ecology is proud to be a place where innovative and interdisciplinary researchers come to change the world.

You can watch Rudy Dieudonne’s Three Minute Thesis presentation on YouTube.

Legacy gifts to the School of Human Ecology continue to make a meaningful difference in students’ lives. Motivated by her belief in the importance of education, alumna Mora Himel Lincoln ’43  forethought decades ago now ensures graduate students like Rudy Dieudonne can explore new ideas and innovations.