Q&A with CS Ed Reformer and PhD Candidate Omoju Miller

2014-02-25 13.52.53

Omoju Miller is a computer science education reformer. She is also a PhD candidate under Dr. Alice Agogino, a member of the CS10 family, a Technology Portfolio Manager at Google.org and a mother.

This is how she fights for her passions.

bB: Tell me a bit about your background.
OM: I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, which is a huge metropolis of around 16 or 17 million people. I went to a private high school called St Johns College. At my high school I was one of the lucky few – we had computer science. I had a CS class in my high school and this was in 1994 – I’m dating myself here. I hated that CS class because it was all theoretical. We actually never touched a computer. We learned about ALU, CPU, this and that, binary, bytes…so I was not really interested until the following year.

I came here to the States and the first school I went to was a historically black college – an HBCU – and everybody had to have a computer technology/literacy class. And it was at that school at that class that I really got my first one-on-one to use a computer in 1996. And I fell in love and I discovered the Internet. As a student who grew up in Nigeria and now lived in Memphis, Tennessee, I was disconnected from my culture, and the internet gave me an opportunity to reconnect with my culture in a different way than I would have been able to do while I was in Nigeria because I could do research online. And then it also let me connect with the wider world at large. It just brought the world to your fingertips. And I was just so fascinated by that that I switched my major to computer science.

bB: What was your path to Berkeley?
OM: [When] I switched my major to computer science, [I] transferred to the University of Memphis, and was at the EECS department and graduated with a computer science undergrad degree. After that I went to work for a startup, also in Memphis, called ThoughtWare – it no longer exists now. We were doing AI work. We were doing MOOCs before there were MOOCs. So we did workforce development for Fortune 500 companies using online education platforms that we built ourselves. Actually it was okay, it was kind of fun. The bubble busted, things went kind of crazy, but I always knew I was going to go to grad school so it didn’t bother me. I actually left and went to grad school.

I went to grad school at the University of Memphis, and I did continue to do work on artificial intelligence, specifically knowledge representation on the semantic web. I had some great collaborators and we did some great work. But at some point I started to realize that my identity as a woman in computing was becoming something that was more and more and more important. Even more important than the research work I was doing. So I took a break of like four years.

I was staying at home with my son then, to really think about what kind of impact I could have on the world. I was very good at the work I was doing, I was able to publish, I was fine, but I didn’t feel like I was really making an impact. I did not feel like my own voice was being heard. So I decided I was going to switch to computer science and education instead of pure computer science. Because what I really wanted to do was multiply people who looked like me in computer science. I wanted to see more girls in computer science. I wanted to see them to be able to build things that they wanted to build, to be able to solve problems that they wanted to solve, and that is what brought me here to Berkeley.

bB: How do you think your path has changed since you started your graduate education?
OM: I learned quickly that you can have two things: You can have interests, and you can have passion. AI is an interest [for me]; my passion that keeps me up at night, keeps me from sleeping, uses up all my free brain time is the issue of underrepresented minorities in computer science. Because that is my passion, I decided I would go through on that full-throttle. So that kind of shifted my focus from AI to computer science education. So that has been the major push.

bB: When did you realize you wanted to make a difference in the field?
OM: So I wanted to make a difference in the field. That’s what brought me to Berkeley. When I realized that I could actually make a real difference in the field, and really move the needle, I would say that has happened last semester. I would literally say that happened when I passed my qualifying exams. I realized that I could actually make a change. It wasn’t just a desire now; it was something that I was going to do. And I already think I am making a difference in the field.

bB: Why do you want to earn a PhD?
OM: The first desire for me to earn a PhD was because I wanted to write books, and I wanted to be taken seriously. Now I actually want to have that level of expertise in something. I want to have expertise in my passion. And I know that one of the best ways to gather expertise is actually to go get a PhD. For me, doing a PhD is one of the avenues that we can push the boundaries of knowledge and actually add to the field, and push it even further out.

bB: Do you think that having a PhD will have more of an impact in CS education than going out and teaching right away, or going into an educational industry?
OM: A PhD gives me the ability to recognize what works and what does not work, what is good and what is not as good as it should be. Taking that and coupling that with that environment that allows you to have scale and impact – then that is the win-win. And it is for that reason that I am also now at Google. Google now gives me that access to a broad impact. We do things at scale – we don’t do small things – we do things at a ridiculously huge scale, a global scale. And one of our efforts is in computer science education. So some of the things that we are going to do in that area, we are going to do it at a global level. So coupled with the expertise, the knowledge expertise, and with infrastructure, and a system as wide as a Google, then you can really have BOOM – a major impact. Not just in California and US, but globally.

I learned quickly that you can have two things: You can have interests, and you can have passion. AI is an interest [for me]; my passion that keeps me up at night, keeps me from sleeping, uses up all my free brain time is the issue of underrepresented minorities in computer science. Because that is my passion, I decided I would go through on that full-throttle. So that kind of shifted my focus from AI to computer science education.

bB: So you are part of the CS10 team –
OM: Family.

bB: – Family! Can you tell me about the progress the class has made since you joined?
OM: So, since I joined the family, we broke boundaries under the leadership of the indomitable Dan Garcia. The man is a living phenom. We now have more girls than boys. That’s a major change for us, so that has been amazing, phenomenal. Something else that we’ve also been able to achieve through the efforts of Dan and the entire team is actually having more TAs who are female. That has been a major change for us that has helped our female students to have a better experience of the class. And coming down the pipe we will also have a version of the course that will be taught on edX.

bB: What are you currently focused on?
OM: Right now I am focused on – we want a new word for this – but it is currently known as “Beyond Blocks.” So our Beauty and Joy of Computing class [CS10] has been widely successful for our students taking that class. We teach that class in a drag-and-drop visual environment. The next class up, 61A, uses Python. And we realize that sometimes our students who come from CS10 and go to 61A have a bit of a challenge in transitioning from a drag-and-drop visual environment to a text-based written programming language.

So now what we want to do is work on our “Beyond Blocks” which has been heretofore something that has just been entirely supplemental – and hopefully make it a part of [CS10], the course itself, so that our students will have this transitional module that helps them prepare adequately to succeed in subsequent classes that use Python. And then I am also making sure that what we do in that area is also culturally responsive, so that it not only serves our students well, but it serves all the teachers who will be teaching our material anywhere in the world.

bB: What do you mean by “culturally responsive”?
OM: A very clear example is an European team trying to teach the idea of probability in Tanzania using poker and games of chance. How many computer science curriculums have been written where poker and the game of blackjack are what you have to do? Those cultures that don’t have poker and blackjack have such a hard time completing that project because they don’t even know what it is. They don’t have any kind of mental prototype, framework, concept of what that means. But we’ve done it here so often that blackjack – 21 – we don’t even bat an eye.

Well, when you go to a place where they don’t even have that kind of thing, who invents that piece of the curriculum then? You have to conceptualize the way that material is taught. So now you have to decouple the essence of probability away from poker, and come up with an entirely new way of teaching the material that can easily allow the students in that place to not have any cognitive delay in understanding the material. Or even have a cognitive advantage if you find the right things in their culture that is a good substitute for whatever it is you are trying to teach.

bB: What do you think the ultimate impact is of CS10?
OM: The ultimate impact of CS10 – let’s first of all start in the United States. It’s because we are one of the pilot courses for CS Principles [a proposed AP course for high schools]. So if we do this right, we can provide to the larger computer science community a very, very rigorous curriculum that supports women and underrepresented minorities, allowing them to thrive in that course. And better yet, hopefully those same students will go on to take the AP Exam and thrive as well, and then they will probably feel much more confident when they go off to college to declare their major as computer science.

The challenges that we are facing here are the same exact challenges that are being faced globally. Many countries do not have computer science in their high schools, and so basically somebody has to invent what that curriculum looks like. Because we’ve put so much research effort in our curriculum, we hope that it gets globally adopted as a standard of “this is how you do it right.” And making it even more culturally responsive becomes even more necessary because we don’t know where we are going to end up – it could be in Egypt, it could be in India, it could be in Malaysia, it could be in Nigeria. We don’t know. So we need to come up with a way to support multiple cultures teaching the material. That is our goal.

bB: You’ve also recently taken on a position at Google.org. What will you be working on?
OM: Google.org is the grant-giving arm of Google. We give grants to support people doing work in [a global] space, and I will be leading their computer science and women initiative. Getting more girls to become computer scientists, software engineers – that is part of our mission. We see that if we don’t crack that nut, if we don’t solve that problem, it’s going to start affecting us in a very deleterious manner because we can’t grow our workforce, we can’t grow our pipeline. So we have to be part of the solution to that because it really affects us, and our ability to innovate and our ability to grow. And it is a national problem as well as a global problem. So we can’t just say, “Well we don’t have it here, maybe we’ll have it somewhere else in the world.” There are not that many places in the world that have the solution either. So it behooves us to really support efforts in addressing that.

bB: Why is it important for more women to take an interest in computer science or STEM as a whole?
OM: So I will start with computer science. We’re creators, right? We invent the future. First of all, you are only going to create a real solution to a problem if you recognize there is a problem to begin with. So most of us creators, we come up with solutions to things that are challenges to our everyday lives.  Well there are several things that are challenges particularly to women’s lives that there aren’t that many innovative solutions for. And I really think that some of the reasons those things don’t exist is because [women] are not at the drawing table creating those solutions themselves, innovating in those spaces.

Number two, research has shown over and over and over again that heterogeneous teams far out-produce homogenous teams. So just from a bottom-line aspect, from a dollars-and-sense aspect, diversity earns you more innovation bang for the buck. Because of that, we need all kinds of diversity – gender, socio-economic, sexual orientation – but gender is a huge one because half of the population is female. And some teams now are not having any women in them. So it’s holding us back from innovating.

bB: So you are getting a PhD and you are working part time and you are also a mother. How has that balance been?
OM: I will start with the fact of being a parent. One of the most important decisions in a woman’s life is who she chooses to be her partner, and who she chooses to have her children with. I happen to have a very, very supportive co-parent. I am divorced, but my son’s father and I are an excellent parental team. So a lot of the things I am able to do is because I have the support of my co-parent. Number one.

Number two: by being both places [Berkeley and Google], and having my time split between the two places, it’s a little bit of a challenge, but not as much as you might think. The challenge is context switching. If you have to switch into multiple contexts, it drains your cognitive capacities. If you are in multiple environments addressing the same contexts, it is almost the same kind of things. The area of expertise, the area of knowledge – that we are pushing, trying to reform – does not change. It’s still computer science education and issues of women. The work I do here [at Berkeley] informs my work over there [at Google]. The work that I do over there informs the work I do here. It’s just one giant continuum. The geography changes, the audience changes – the material and expertise gained and required does not change.

I’m also one of those kinds of people who like a challenge. If there isn’t an element of challenge and stress – good stress – I’m not as excited. So things that push me out of my boundaries a little bit – that push me to go beyond what I can already do – those are the areas in which I thrive.

Research has shown over and over and over again that heterogeneous teams far out-produce homogenous teams. So just from a bottom-line aspect, from a dollars-and-sense aspect, diversity earns you more innovation bang for the buck. Because of that, we need all kinds of diversity – gender, socio-economic, sexual orientation – but gender is a huge one because half of the population is female. And some teams now are not having any women in them. So it’s holding us back from innovating.

bB: Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?
OM: [In] five years I see myself as continuing to lead the revolution of computer science education in America. I consider myself as a computer science reformer. I want to reform that entire field, how it’s taught, how it’s received, the whole kit and caboodle. Maybe 15 years, I see myself taking a serious look about running for public office. Maybe either running for Congress, maybe the Senate or maybe the governor of California because another part I see that is seriously broken is government. And many of us feel like somebody else is going to solve it. Well the somebody else is us. There aren’t many women in government. We are not at the table legislating for our own lives. We’re fighting battles over contraception and there aren’t women on some of those boards. It makes no sense. Until we throw our hats into the ring and become those congresswomen and those women in the senate, nothing’s going to change. So those are my two: education and government.

bB: Is there any advice you’d like to give L&S CS and EECS majors?
OM: When I was an undergrad, I was extremely focused on the algorithmic back-end of the science. I didn’t pay enough attention to design and front-end. If I could do it again, I would want to be balanced in my expertise. My knowledge base right now is sorely lacking in design. I wish I had focused some attention on design. So in terms of curriculum and the courses you choose, I would do that. [Also], everybody should do AI. I know right now it’s an elective, but everybody should take AI. Then, when it comes to work, take the job that challenges you the most. Always be growing. Don’t do the easy thing – do the thing that pushes you to the limits of your knowledge. Because that’s the only way you’re going to develop into an even better version of yourself, professionally and academically.

bB: If you could explain your mission of who you are in one sentence, what would you say it is?
OM: Reformer: the person that fights to create the world that should be.

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