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“Start with a strong, clear vision.” With Penny Bauder & Marina Umaschi Bers

To me, it’s not about being a woman in STEM. It’s about Marina in STEM. It’s about Cassie in STEM. I think people are people and they do good work or bad work. Things are a little bit more complicated than just gender. There are a lot of inequalities, not just gender to deal with: […]

To me, it’s not about being a woman in STEM. It’s about Marina in STEM. It’s about Cassie in STEM. I think people are people and they do good work or bad work. Things are a little bit more complicated than just gender. There are a lot of inequalities, not just gender to deal with: socioeconomic diversity, educational opportunities children get, the kind of education their parents have, etc. Did you have to go to school to have lunch or did you go to school to be educated? These issues are a lot bigger than if you’re a woman or not a woman.


As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Marina Umaschi Bers.

When Marina Umaschi Bers moved to the U.S. from Argentina in 1994, she had already been a journalist. In Boston, she studied educational technology at the MIT Media Laboratory, working under edtech pioneer Seymour Papert. These days, Bers wears many hats: she is professor and chair at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, serves as an adjunct professor in the Computer Science Department at Tufts University, and heads the interdisciplinary Developmental Technologies (DevTech) research group. Author of five books including Coding as a Playground: Programming and Computational Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom, she is also the co-founder and chief scientist at KinderLab Robotics, Inc., maker of the KIBO robot, which she and her DevTech team developed with funding from the National Science Foundation.


Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us what brought you to this specific career path?

While I was doing my undergrad degree in Social Communication at Buenos Aires University, I was working as a journalist in Argentina when I interviewed Seymour Papert for a story I was writing. I fell in love with his work, and then I started learning more about him and I said, “I don’t want to write about him, I want to study with him.”

So I came to the U.S. to study at the MIT Media Lab with Seymour When I finished my PhD in 2001, I became an assistant professor at Tufts and have been there ever since. I started the DevTech research group, which focuses on developing on new technologies and approaches for young children. In 2014, with funding from the National Science Foundation, we developed and evaluated a prototype of what is now KIBO, a screen-free, programmable coding robot for ages 4–7. To make that prototype widely available, I joined forces with my friend Mitch Rosenberg, who had been an executive at several robotics start-ups, and we co-founded KinderLab Robotics.

How do you balance your work as a department chair at Tufts, a leader of KinderLab, and a mentor to other women who want to pursue STEM careers?

You have to be very organized in the work and have a wonderful team and colleagues. I think I was able to create that at both Tufts and KinderLab. You cannot do it alone. When I co-founded KinderLab with Mitch, the idea was to find a co-founder who would be not only excellent, but who would understand the pressures on my time because of my multiple commitments. That was very important from the beginning.

At Tufts, I play three different roles: I’m professor, director of my DevTech research group, and the chair of the department. And in all of those roles I have wonderful people who work with me. You need to learn how to delegate and how to be on top of what people are doing, but also give them flexibility so they can find their own passion and bring it to the work we do together.

What was the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting your career? What lesson did you learn from that?

Oh, that’s a great question. When I came to the U.S., I made a lot of mistakes just because I didn’t understand how things worked in the U.S., which is very different than how they work in Argentina.

In my work and research, I’m pretty fast, and I wasn’t patient enough with people who I dealt with who need a little bit more time. I think I should have given those people a little more time. Coming from a very high-pressure place like the MIT Media Lab, I assumed everyone was going to be the same.

The lesson I learned is that sometimes it’s worth giving people more time because it will help you build a stronger team. When you’re on your own, you can go very fast because it’s just you. But you need others if you want to go far.

What do you think makes your department (or company) stand out? Can you share a story?

It’s exactly the same for both the department and the company: It’s the people. People who are hardworking, who are not shy about contributing their own ideas and making their own suggestions. And if there’s a need, they’re willing to do the hard work.

It’s also having those people truly aligned with a single vision. In my research group, DevTech, and KinderLab we have a strong vision, which is using research-based applications of programming languages and robotics to help young children, families, and teachers learn in new ways. It’s about using technology in positive ways to promote positive development. It’s not just about improving test scores; it’s about learning how to be better human beings.

The current situation, it’s not easy for professors who have been teaching the same course very successfully semester after semester. They’re very good at teaching face-to-face, and their syllabus has been designed to be face-to-face. A lot of these courses include observations of children.

With the pandemic, over the course of two days, life as we knew it at the university and at the department had to shift, and the faculty really stepped up to the challenge. They became learners again. They had to learn how to use videoconferencing and a lot of technologies that some of the faculty had never used before. There were no complaints. They started redoing their syllabi, and started adjusting to what’s required now. So that’s an example of a team doing whatever it takes to keep the shared vision going.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Right before this whole crisis started, in March, a team of my students flew to Norfolk, Virginia, where we were doing a study with KIBO in eight schools. They flew to train 30 or 40 kindergarten teachers who were then going to take KIBO into their classrooms and do a three-month study. We had already completed the study in second grade and in first grade classrooms with very good results that showed that teachers were able to teach easily with KIBO, after a one day professional development only, and that children learned to code, created amazing KBIO robotic projects, engaged in computational thinking and improved their literacy skills as well. to think.

The training with kindergarten tecahers happened but right after, schools were closed in Norfolk, and they’re not going to start again until September (maybe). So the last phase of our project with KIBO completely stopped. KIBO is a tangible object, so it’s not something that we can do online.

But the good news is that I talked with Angela DeMik, our colleague in Norfolk, and she told me that teachers were so excited about the training that they asked if we can do next year. For us, it will involve a lot of shifting around because we have other projects in September, but we’ll accommodate them because we want to finish what we started, and we want to give those teachers something to look forward to as they enter into the new school year.

Another research project we’re working on is Robotics and Values conducted in kindergarten classrooms in both the US and Argentina. The questions we asked were, “Can a robotics-based program not only promote the acquisition of important technology skills but also help children become better citizens and human beings? Can robotics be used to support character development and values such as creativity, curiosity and generosity?”

We finished collecting all the data and put together a video that tells the story of the project and includes teachers and children.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Well, I think things are changing very rapidly, so it’s not the same now as when I was starting at the Media Lab. For example, at Tufts, half of the students in computer science are women now, so things have shifted.

One of my former doctoral students, Dr. Amanda Sullivan, did her PhD with me and she published a book recently about exactly this topic called Breaking the STEM StereotypeI highly recommend it for those interested in this topic.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Well, to be honest, I did my PhD at the MIT Media Lab, where I didn’t feel any of those challenges at the time. I felt more of a difference being from a different country and learning English than being a woman.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or tech?

To me, it’s not about being a woman in STEM. It’s about Marina in STEM. It’s about Cassie in STEM. I think people are people and they do good work or bad work. Things are a little bit more complicated than just gender. There are a lot of inequalities, not just gender to deal with: socioeconomic diversity, educational opportunities children get, the kind of education their parents have, etc. Did you have to go to school to have lunch or did you go to school to be educated? These issues are a lot bigger than if you’re a woman or not a woman.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience in STEM or Tech”?

1) Start with a strong, clear vision.

2) You cannot do it alone, so surround yourself with people who are good people and good at what they do.

3) If you realize there’s someone on your team who is not working out, give them some time. If that person still doesn’t meet expectations, it’s best to part ways rather than having that person take up more of your time than the people who are a better fit.

4) The most important thing is not building a workforce, but building a community. Just because you have people working together, it doesn’t mean you have a community. The community is something you need to build.

5) If you help people find and explore their passions, you’ll have a team of people who want to be there.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

At DevTech, we have old-fashioned face-to-face meetings once a week that are an hour-and-a-half long. It’s a group of about 25 people. I divide them into teams and each team leader updates everyone about their accomplishments or difficulties for the week. The idea here is that everyone knows what everyone else is doing so we can build a sense of a shared story. So if anyone asked, “What is DevTech doing,” everyone can answer that question.

We also do a lot of practice talks for conferences, and everyone gives feedback. It doesn’t matter if they’re a freshman student or a postdoc. Everyone’s treated equally. We have a culture where providing constructive feedback is something we want.

To build that community I was talking about, we also do a lot of celebrations. We celebrate birthdays with cake and graduations. Every year we have a big party at my house where everyone brings their spouses and their families. If anyone graduates, we have flowers and lots of food.

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

We have many research projects and we form a team for each one. There’s a postdoc or grad student in charge, and then other grad students and undergrads can choose the teams they want to be part of. This way, the teams are based on passion. If someone is on a team, it’s a team they really want to be on.

I talk with the team leaders so they become not just bosses, but mentors. Team leaders aren’t always chosen in terms of seniority, and I think students really appreciate that it doesn’t matter what their pecking order is. If they’re willing to put in the work and they’re willing to learn, they can do things that most students wouldn’t normally do.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m very grateful to my doctoral mentor at the MIT Media Lab, Seymour Papert. He really opened a door for me. The first time I applied, I didn’t get in. I told him, “I really want to work with you. What can I do?” And he gave me a list of classes and courses and things I needed to learn. And I did, and the second time I got in with a full scholarship.

He really took a chance accepting me. He was from South Africa and I spoke poor English, so I couldn’t really understand him and his accent, but I had good ideas. I will always be very, very thankful for that opportunity. It really changed my life.

While I was a student, he gave me the freedom to pursue my own research interests. My PhD thesis was about virtual worlds and values and now, 25 years later, I’m able to go back to the idea of integrating values with technology. At the time at the Media Lab, there were not that many people interested in values. It was mostly around computer science. But I was doing something more humanistic, and he allowed me to take courses at Harvard Divinity school so I could understand how different religions think about different values. I’m very thankful for that.

I remember the first time I met him face-to-face. I was so nervous. There I was, coming from Argentina, and he was this amazing, world-renowned edtech leader, the father of educational computing. I arrived to his office trembling. He looked at me and said, “Oops, I forgot to go to the supermarket. My wife is going to be angry at me.”

And I was thinking, “Oh my God, that’s it. I prepared and now there’s no meeting.”

And he said, “Come on, we’ll talk while we shop.” And so we went to Whole Foods, and while we looked for tomatoes and peppers, he was basically interviewing me. And that was wonderful because it took the nervousness out of me and made things easier.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m Jewish and I have a very strong Jewish grounding. I did one year of introductory rabbinical school while I was in Argentina. I decided it wasn’t for me, first because I wasn’t sure what my relationship with God was. And second, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted.

But Jewish values really inform a lot of my work — and Jewish values are not just Jewish. Jewish tradition has an impact on Christian tradition and Muslim tradition, and all the faiths that think about one God. The values are universal values. So I was grounded in a tradition of values, and then learned that those values are not unique to a particular tradition. It’s really about being in community with others. What can we do to fix the world?

So I asked myself, “How can I use technology to fix the world?” But not in a technical sense — the coronavirus situation relates to this. Science alone right now cannot fix the world. We need values. We need people to respect the rules about space and social distancing. Countries that have not respected those rules, that have not follow values of solidarity, are having a very hard time.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I don’t want a single movement. What I would like to see is many movements that are all finding their own ways to do good in the world. And that’s part of the idea behind the project we did with robotics and values in kindergarten classrooms in Argentina and the US.

I would like to inspire many, many, many movements, so everyone grounded in their own traditions, their own culture, their own communities, their own technologies, or their own approaches to life and science are able to come up with their own ways and respect and learn from each other. I think that’s the way.

Because for different people the world is broken in many different ways. I would say, first allow people to understand what is broken in their own way. Then positive human development comes in — having a vision of what makes people thrive in life and what things we need. What are the structures and the supports and the resources we need to put in place so it’s not just about fixing what’s broken, but it’s really about making a better world?

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

There are two and they are both musicians. One is Joan Manuel Serrat, who is from Spain. He’s a singer who sings about the world, with a powerful social message and beautiful poetry. He’s very well-loved, all over the Spanish-speaking world.

The other one is a young musician from Israel, Idan Rachel, who uses his music to bring together all kinds of different cultures and traditions and uses music as a way to bridge cultural and religious differences.

As musicians, they both use a symbolic language, music, as a tool to bring joy and try to impact the world in positive ways. That’s what I hope to do with KIBO: use the language of robotics to bring about positive interactions, creativity, and people coming together.

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