In the basement of Northampton Community College’s Fowler Family Southside Center in Bethlehem, there’s a fully furnished apartment with all the latest in home technology — but no one lives there.
The college’s Smart Apartment Learning Lab is a tool, used to teach students across disciplines, as well as community members, how to build, break and defend the tech that so many people use every day without much thought.
“This picture frame has a camera,” said Beth L. Ritter-Guth, associate dean of Online Learning & Educational Technology, pointing to an inconspicuous frame angled on a bookshelf. “So, if you’re a sketchy person and you’re like, ‘Oh, you know, this is a picture of us at the beach. Put it right by your bed so that you can see me every night.’
“There’s actually a camera that produces a livestream,” she added, pointing to a tiny dot where a camera was hidden inside the frame.
There are 15 cameras and microphones – some obvious, but most hidden – inside the college’s Smart Apartment, which doubles as an escape room. (And that may or may not be a hint in the game.) The goal, school officials said, is to give students practical knowledge about how smart home accessories and appliances work that can help them in their daily lives and careers.
The college was recognized by the Instructional Technology Council for the Smart Apartment, winning their 2021 Innovative eLearning Technology award.
“Winning the award is just really, I think, a great thank you to Northampton for believing in the vision and letting us have this space,” Ritter-Guth said. “We really work to make sure that the room looks like an apartment, that it feels like something a student would live in and then making sure that when they come in, they have a good experience,”
Northampton Community College President Mark Erickson, who is slated to retire next year after working at the college since 2012, said he hasn’t tried the escape room yet, but chuckled at the idea of being stuck inside.
“Our folks are great. I mean, they’re very innovative,” Erickson said. “They’re always pushing the envelope, which we love. I think that’s part of what the college is all about — innovating and moving us forward.”
It’s also a way of getting technology into the hands of students who might not be able to afford it themselves.
“They want to kind of see how they work first,” Ritter-Guth said. “So that’s one thing. But also, now that things are cheaper, they can buy them they don’t think about the risks.
“And just because it’s shiny and new doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe and good.”
Much like a furnished studio apartment, there’s a bed, dressers, a couple couches, some bookshelves, two televisions and a small room off to the right that holds a fridge, counter and microwave. Thrifted or donated art hangs on the walls.
But all the smart upgrades demonstrate how easily technology can be hacked, officials explained.
The smart fridge, for example, has many benefits. A person could check their app connected to the fridge to see what needs to be added to their shopping list when they’re already at the grocery store. The fridge can even tell when items expire, if they’re scanned in. It also plays music and can display cooking shows on the built-in screen.
“But anything with a chip can be hacked,” Ritter-Guth said. “If I wanted to spy on you, I would override the camera in here and then I could watch you in your kitchen all the time.”
Or, she could force the fridge to shut down, spoiling all the food.
The most dangerous item in the Smart Apartment? A diffuser that connects to an app, Ritter-Guth said.
“You can actually make a chemical put in here,” she said. “You put it in, you leave the room, let it go. It kills everybody and everything in the room … [officials] don’t look here for evidence. So, criminal justice is also another big discipline that we work with.”
But the college has opened the escape room to community groups and nonprofits, too, free of charge.
“We’re really just trying to make it something that benefits the community, both through our students and community members themselves,” said Sarah Burton, manager of Instructional Design and Innovation. “It’s really important to me that we make as much information accessible as possible, and just making sure the opportunities exist.”
Residents can also take community classes through the college, like Introduction to Ethical Hacking, Detecting and Avoiding the Modern Hacker or Social Engineering Basics.
“One of the best parts about the Smart Apartment is that is raises awareness of current issues surrounding cybersecurity and it how it impacts everyone, whether we realize it or not,” said Marshal Miller, another manager of Instructional Design and Innovation.
And, during the holidays, lessons about tech are even more important as smart appliances become more affordable and easily gifted.
“People buy it because the market is flooded with all these different devices, but they’re not built securely,” Ritter-Guth said. “It’s important to know that these can be hacked and how you would know if this got hacked. How would you even know how would you fix it? How to stop it?
“The room was built to help with all those sorts of issues, but also to think about the world we live in, ethically, philosophically. We live in a culture where we’re constantly being watched, and we’re constantly performing for cameras. This room helps them think about those issues in ways that just telling them about it doesn’t help.”
For more information about the Smart Apartment, or to try out the college’s community classes, email Ritter-Guth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Morning Call reporter Molly Bilinski can be reached at email@example.com.