Practicing Combating Against Imposter Syndrome — Why I think I am on the Forbes 30 Under 30 List for Science
I recently wrote a post about how being named one of Forbes 30 Under 30 for Science made me feel. In this post I want to focus on what I think contributed to me being named on the list.
I was nominated primarily for my work as one of the co-founders of ThoughtSTEM.
Stephen Foster, Lindsey Handley and I have dedicated all of our efforts for the last 3 years on teaching children how to program. First, a little history on how we started.
In 2011 I started my PhD at UCSD under two of the best advisors, Bill Griswold and Beth Simon. At this time I was working with Beth to discover, iterate on, and disseminate effective ways to teach computer science to novices from 16–21 (high schoolers and college students). I learned so much from Beth, particularly how to be scientific in the discovery and investigation of education. It was hard work, and something I was very new at, but the work we were doing was very important to me because I could see it actually having an impact on real people.
Funnily, I didn’t match this with what “science” was at the time. So with Bill I tried finding other research projects to work on. Luckily, Stephen had an idea for a video game that would teach programming to kids. We began working on CodeSpells together, which I thought was more “scientific” because I was building something.
What I didn’t realize was that what I learned (and continue to learn) from Beth was the most scientific part of what I would do in the last 5 years. Really trying to understand how people learn, how they interact with software and curriculum and learning environments and peers. I think the fact that I haven’t realized that this was the science I was doing made it hard to realize what I was accomplishing.
During the development of CodeSpells Stephen did a lot of complex coding aspects, but I did a lot of the curriculum structure. I conducted a lot of the user studies, and then modified the code to work better in certain environments.
Stephen is brilliant, he is an incredible programmer, and he has a lot of really smart intuitions based on the extensive research and work he has done throughout his life. He and I approach problems very differently, and we succeed in different ways. From my perspective — Stephen is a builder who delivers. What he builds is always based on knowledge he has acquired, and yet he knows how to balance finding the “perfect” solution, with finding a solution that is good enough. Something that teaches kids to program well and is actually available to them is better than something that teaches every kid to program but never gets into their hands. That’s why Stephen is a great CEO — he knows how to balance quality with availability, which is really important when you are trying to run a business — but also extremely important when you are actually trying to help people.
I, on the other hand, like to make sure what I’m doing is “right”. This, I think, is where I end up struggling a lot with what I consider “success”. I don’t always get things out in time because I want to make sure it’s “right”, but you can’t really make sure it’s right unless you get it out…I get stuck in this cycle a lot. Luckily, I have had Stephen in my life for the last 5 years, and I’m finally understanding how to not be so stubborn and listen to his advice. He helps me understand how to achieve “right-ness” while still helping people as quickly as possible.
Anyway — back to the history. We worked on CodeSpells together, and I focused a lot on the effectiveness and how to make it a better and better learning environment. Around 2011 I was asked to teach a young child to program on the weekends. I decided to start a little programming club where I would have 4 kids and I would teach them to program using software like Scratch and Alice. I would talk to them about program design and testing, and help them create what they imagined. It was fun hanging out with the kids and inspiring to see them building such awesome programs.
Stephen noticed what I was doing and asked if I was interested in starting a company with him around this idea: teaching kids to code. He had been interested in starting a company for a while, and since we both had been doing research in the area we had a lot of practice.
So I agreed to join him and Lindsey in this crazy adventure. Lindsey was also a PhD student at the time, but in BioChemistry. In addition to being a brilliant scientist, she was also really smart at finances and was good at understanding the business requirements. So in October 2012 we started ThoughtSTEM.
At first we thought we would teach kids individually in their homes and charge a lot of money (like $100/hour). We thought parents really wanted to have their children be expert programmers by the time they got to high school. This wasn’t true. Through customer interviews and research we discovered that parents know coding was important and wanted their children to have an understanding of it, but wanted them to learn it in a fun, self-directed way. So instead, we started doing weekend workshops.
In the beginning, the differences between the way Stephen and I approached problems came out a lot. We disagreed on execution because I wanted things to be “right” and he wanted to get as many students at least exposed to coding as possible. I think we were both right. I think it was important to first get as many kids exposed as possible, and then we could iterate on our offerings to make them “right”.
I put “right” in quotes because that is a subjective term — which also adds complexity.
I’m glad that I understand that now, it is against how I naturally solve problems, but that is a part of growing intellectually and emotionally. I didn’t “compromise” and just do it his way, I realized that the best way to do it “right” is to get it in the hands of as many people as possible first!
During the weekend workshops parents would ask us if we would be interested in running after school programs around San Diego, so we did that. It was exciting — we were driving all around San Diego County, teaching kids as young as 7 and as old as 15 all different types of programming.
I then started focusing my efforts on having a set curriculum and helping kids progress through learning coding concepts, and creating more and more complex programs. It was HARD work! I spent so many days and nights writing curriculum, and printing copies, training teachers, grading. It was amazing and fun, but exhausting.
During this time, Stephen’s brilliant mind started seeing more opportunity — Minecraft. He started noticing that every student we encountered was obsessed with Minecraft, and he realized that if we could offer them a learning experience centered around Minecraft, they would be more likely to be interested, and to continue learning with us.
I was hesitant, because the way I think — things being “right” — I thought Minecraft might be a phase. I though that if we focused on a game, rather than curriculum, we might put in a lot of effort for something that would go away quickly. Stephen saw a bigger opportunity — get as many kids in the door as possible — then if Minecraft does phase out we already would have the attention of all those kids and could transition them into something else. I understand that now, I agree with that now, and I also never realized the social impact Minecraft would have.
So Stephen prototyped a software that would eventually be LearnToMod. He started teaching some students with it, and it began to grow. We, as a company, decided to focus on LearnToMod, and I began doing what I did best, making curriculum, training teachers, and producing content. I developed a Coursera Course to teach teachers around the world how to teach with LearnToMod. I wrote a For Dummies book to help kids learn on their own. I led a team of people to develop content and curriculum for the students in San Diego. And then I started working on the coding side of things. I think I’m stronger at extending software, adding to it, and teaching people how to use it, but I’m taking the challenge to also build it.
I have used the science that I have learned in the last 10 years to contribute to ThoughtSTEM and LearnToMod, to help make our company what it is today. I didn’t necessarily write the code to prototype the software, but I do help make the software and the learning experience one that could be used by many different kinds of people. I do help by bringing a different perspective to the table everyday. I am a part of an incredible team, and I do contribute to that team as much as my counterparts.
I don’t think I deserve to be named 30 Under 30 instead of Stephen and Lindsey, but I do think that we deserve to be recognized for the effort that all three of us have put in for the last 3 (and more) years. I am proud of what we have done, and I’m proud to say that the science that I have contributed to my company and my field is improving the lives of children, parents, and teachers who are interested in novices learning to code.
Everything I have written here about Stephen is just the way I perceive interactions with him, and in no way am I attempting to define him as a person. I recommend that you get to know him yourself, you will be a better person for it. I also didn’t talk about Lindsey a lot in this post because it had more to do with development of code, but Lindsey is an integral part of the team. Without her we would have software, but not a product — she truly takes us from research to a business.