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Interview with Professor Gillian Smith: Crafting Ethical Connections in Computing Lead, 2022
Interview with Professor Gillian Smith: Crafting Ethical Connections in Computing Lead, 2022

Interview with Professor Gillian Smith: Crafting Ethical Connections in Computing Lead, 2022

Noah Bedard (N) and Hannah Goodsell (H) interview Dr. Gillian Smith (G) about her project in redesigning how programming is taught and shared with the public.

N: So the first question here is just how would you, in your own words, define public interest technology?

G: I think I would define it as reorienting the way we design, and use, and research technology to serve the public good, as opposed to the much more limited audience that tech typically serves.

N: Yeah, absolutely, and what really pushed your exploration into this? As opposed to just being like “Yeah I’ll do it!”

G: I guess a few things so, and my research has always been in some way integrating social justice into computing technologies, and kinda looking at the consequences of AI systems, for example. Or like the underlying politics and values that are built into AI systems in games and creative media. This specific project that I’m doing for PIT-UN is kind of a side project to a larger ongoing project called Code Crafters, and Code Crafters is an NSF-funded project that’s looking at using generative design to teach computational thinking in an informal setting, especially to adults and especially to women. And so in the Code Crafters project what we have is this quilt generator that we’ve created that people can play with different design ideas in, set parameters in and kind of explore the generative space of this algorithmic system, which makes sense to a computer scientist but doesn’t make sense to people outside of CS. And then tries to give people who are using that software, through a series of workshops, a language to be able to describe what the computing system is doing, and then to be able to translate some of that understanding out into larger applications of computing in society.

N: Gotcha, so really trying to establish an informal language that people can grasp without needing multiple years of college courses.

G: Yeah! Yeah like really kind of build a stronger algorithmic literacy among the general public without needing to take like, a year of computer science courses and learning how to code and all of these sorts of things. So that’s the focus of the Code Crafters project, and one of the things that we found when we were beginning research in that project is… We did a bunch of focus groups and interviews and surveys… with quilters at the very beginning of that project saying like “What matters to you about learning about computing, and learning about how algorithms work and how computing works (and) building computer science skills?” And the audience kinda bifurcated, where the vast majority of the audience was like “I don’t wanna learn how to code, I don’t need to, I don’t have time for it, I don’t wanna spend what time I have learning it, it’s just not interesting to me. But computers are a pain in the ass and I wish I understood those better, and like, news articles keep coming out talking about AI doing this, and AI doing that, and I don’t feel like I get it.” So the majority of the audience really wanted to be able to focus on that sort of space, and so that’s kinda where we geared the Code Crafters project. But there was a pretty still not a small subset of the people we talked to saying “Actually I would really like to learn how to code, and I didn’t learn how to code during college” or “I tried taking a class in high school but like, I got pushed out and it wasn’t really for me, and I wasn’t really into it and so I decided I wasn’t gonna do it anymore, but like, I feel like my career would go in a better direction if I had programming skills.” Right, like “Maybe I’d be able to apply for jobs that I can’t apply for without having some of these skills”, or just like a general interest in wanting to learn more, and feeling like they’re locked out from being able to learn it because they don’t wanna go back to school, like classes are somewhere between boring and inaccessible. And like self-teaching how to code is bizarrely, actually, still really hard to do. And so what we’re focusing on in this PIT-UN  project is developing a way for people with their background in kind of creative design to learn how to code in a friendly and accessible way. We’d originally intended to kind of pair it alongside WPI’s intro programming for non-majors class, which I teach, um… COVID and this year and… All of the things that made this year awful made that not feasible to do. But, now we’re in a place where we’re investigating kind of developing an online course that teaches skills, that then at some point in the future, when this grant runs out, we’ll be able to kinda revisit how it could tie back to the WPI curriculum.

N: Gotcha, so very much the two-pronged approach of public interest technology where half of it is “we’ll we need to educate these people” because it’s becoming more and more an active involvement in their life, whether they’re aware of it or not, and then half where it’s people who want an education but don’t have time, can’t afford it… too old, or they feel like they’re too old, not that you’re ever too old but.

G: Yeah! Or just like feel locked out from the ability to learn. Right, so we’re very much on the education side of PIT.N: Absolutely. Did you, Hannah, want to add anything?

H: I noticed on one of your twitter threads that, it looked like there was an MQP team helping out with this? Did I read that correctly or was that a different project?

G: It depends how expansive you want to be in defining the project. So like PIT-UN money didn’t pay for that MQP, and didn’t pay for that project, but it is very directly related to the project that we are doing with PIT-UN money. So I don’t know what way you want to boundary-set, I find it hard to boundary-set, but I can if you need me to.

H: Yeah! I guess could you talk a little bit about how things unfolded this year specifically with the part of the project that was funded by PIT-UN? And then we can go a little bit into the MQP since it is like, directly related to it.

G: Right, so we started in… We started late, we started in D-term of this year was when we really finally had the time and the capacity after COVID, um… And then D-term was differently hard, so we started in D-term this year, PIT-UN is funding a PHD student, especially over the summer, to develop content for an online course in creative coding that has quilt applications. So you learn how to code, you modify existing software to be able to modify a little generator for a quilt, and you’re kinda like learning the programming language stuff alongside learning a bit about quilt design. Or pattern design more broadly, actually, not just quilt design.

H: And so, did you, minus the slight time difference than when you might’ve wanted to start working on this project this year, did you encounter any unexpected roadblocks or even, maybe, was there something you maybe weren’t expecting that happened… that was actually helpful to the project?

G: That’s a good question, I remember reading that question and wondering how to answer it. So I would say, I think I was telling Noah this, but the original intent for the project had been to pair that learning experience with an on-campus course that we were teaching. Right so, CS-1004 runs in C term, it’s an introductory programming class, and the original intent had been to have community members essentially take that class and bring their perspectives in, and then the students would be able to learn from the members of the general public who were coming in to learn ad vice versa. Covid meant that didn’t work at all. Like we just couldn’t, like what are you gonna do? Like we can’t bring community members in… it’s already hard enough because we’re trying to run something hybrid, like it just didn’t feel like it was going to serve either the people we were trying to serve or the students well at all, to try to bridge that in a way that pre-covid we would’ve been able to do really really well. So that’s a major stumbling block that we had to figure out how to deal with. But what we’ve come around to is actually something I’m kind of excited about… But I had a lot of initial apprehension. What we settled on was developing a free microcredential for learning to code, and I was initially apprehensive because I feel like microcredentials kind of get a bad rap with like online learning and meh, like how do you know to trust it? How do you know that the content is gonna be good, or does it feel like it’s kinda like monetizing education in a weird and kinda icky way? But, A. in making it free, and B. in having more this kind of, more open-ended project-based approach that we’re trying to take in it, and also kinda like a more creative coding approach, where it feels more like taking an art class. And then in conversations with some of the other people who are doing microcredentials on campus, we learned about these various different models for it where you can kind of have like a cohort-based thing so, we could still do like in-person workshop activities and then they’re taking the content through the online thing and kinda bridging it together. And I think we’ve settled in a place where I’m actually feeling pretty happy with it now. AND, if we think back to some of the initial stuff that got us to wanting to take this track and the project in the first place, one of the problems that quilters were identifying to us was that they wanted to learn how to code, and they actually needed certification, like they needed some way to be able to prove to an employer that they knew how to code, and that actually is something that a microcredential can provide. So… I think that answers your question.

H: Yes, for sure! And then, kind of on the logistics side of the project, who would you say are the stakeholders of the project? In the sense of its creation and management, so kind of making sure it’s running smoothly, and also in its development checkins, as well as the direct impacts of when people are interacting with it.

G: So management of the project is me and my PHD student, Trusting Inekwe, he’s a computer science PHD student… And then we are working this summer with two of the other microcredential projects that are happening on campus that aren’t part of PIT-UN, that are a little bit further along and kind of learning from how those projects are going, how to best approach developing this one. In terms of the audience that we’re trying to serve I would say the microcredential as a whole has kind of a broad audience, so like, kinda people in current creative fields, think like illustration, art, design, web design, but who don’t have a computing background… Kinda teaching them how to code through this project series. We are hoping to… be able to use this material we’re developing this summer to run more focused workshops, specifically with quilters. Because part of what we were initially interested in investigating was kinda the existing social connections that come from having a shared hobby, and how that can kinda play into effective learning environments. 

H: And so, I don’t know if you talked about this with Noah initially but what is that connection like? Being able to tie in a hobby with something that you’re learning, like I know I kind of talked about it in my psych of education class, and how it’s super important to be able to relate things to other subjects that you’re more familiar about, is that kind of like the same thing you’re trying to make here?

G: Yeah some of it is kinda content-awareness and metaphor, right? And quilting has… There’s a lot of overlap in metaphor between algorithmic pattern and algorithms. But I think more than that, there’s kind of the surrounding social context as well, so with the larger Code Crafters project, and a little bit with the project that we’re doing, kind of the offshoot that we’re doing with PIT-UN, we’re really looking at kinda the social community structure surrounding the hobby. Right so it’s not just you as an individual saying “Oh, this looks familiar to this thing that i care about or this thing that I know about or this thing that I’m passionate about.”, but also like “Oh I’m in a community that’s dedicated to helping each other learn for this thing that we’re self-motivated in. Can we harness some of that for teaching?” Like to bridge into teaching technical content. 

H: What are you hoping to achieve as the wider implications of this project?

G: How wide are we talking? Like, big-picture?

H: Yeah! Kind of cause, it’s awesome to have the like big picture, and even like long-term implications that you’re maybe anticipating or hoping for.

G: Yeah I think big-picture, what I’m hoping for is contributing to the space of projects that are looking at improving computing literacy among the general public, and there’s a lot of different pieces to that. There’s you know, learning how to code and feeling like you have the option to learn how to code that you don’t need to like fit a particular mode of person to be allowed to learn programming. There’s, just in general, the extent to which… Like we’re having this interview using computers, like all of our communications is mediated by computers, all of our news consumption is mediated by computers, like literally every way that we interface with the world is mediated by computers. And very very few people actually understand how they work, and many many people feel some combination of like, afraid and annoyed and distrustful, and I wanna be able to address that. Where like learning to code isn’t magic and isn’t that hard, it’s on us to figure out better ways to teach it. And also that it shouldn’t be something that is locked to well-resourced school districts in K-12, and university computer science programs. Like everyone deserves to learn how to code.

N: I just wanted to touch on how the project intersections specifically with social-justice-oriented principles, I know that you’ve already talked about providing an education ot people who wouldn’t be able to access it, and talking about enrolling… Combining both hobbies with work and with education, especially hobbies that are done by minority communities in Worcester. But, I would like to focus in just a little bit on that.

G: Um… I mean I think the main way is, you know, equity and access to education. Maybe I’m not sure what you mean.

N: Yeah so… Just talking about how the project focuses on social justice stuff, so, equity in education is a big one, you know, providing resources that people wouldn’t be able to get to otherwise… And then how it’s going to advance social justice in the Worcester community, and then in the technological world, I guess, going forward.

G: Right so, I think… Some of this is the stuff that kind of got roadblocked a little bit that we’re still figuring out this summer, I’m still hoping that before the end of the summer we’re gonna be able to run in-person workshops using some of the material that we’re developing for this microcredential, and that’s specifically targeting quilters in Worcester who, are looking for programming skills to be able to further develop their careers. Right, which feels social-justicey to me?

N: Absolutely.

G: And then I think long-term the fact that it’s gonna be hosted online, and something that I’m hoping we’ll be able to work out a way to keep it free, like as a  free resource through WPI, I think that’s definitely an equity and access to education thing, and also especially at some point that we can work out a way that we can integrate classroom learning at WPI and community learning right? Either through having some shared cohort like where the cohort students in the microcredential are interacting with on-campus students who are learning the same material as them. I think big-picture vision, what I would love, is to break down some of these barriers between WPI classrooms and the community that we exist in. Like why is it that we get to teach all of you, but not like some of the people who are across the street from us. And obviously there are a number of financial reasons that it has to be that way, but it seems like there should be some way that we can break down those barriers a little more.

N: Absolutely, because of excessive financial reasons that it’s not as big a problem as people would initially imagine it being. Which is really funny because Worcester Polytechnic was a free college, for people in Worcester…

G: Well like weirdly, I think this is an opportunity for the microcredential kind of model IF WPI chooses to go that way, like can we take bits and pieces of our education and make them accessible out to the full community.

N: Absolutely. Because no matter what we’re still gonna have students here, it’s not like the microcredentials are going to take the place of a full college education, they can’t!

G: They can’t! Not even close.

N: Yeah, so you’re still gonna have like thousands of people coming here for school. BUT you would just be able to build a better community around your school, and your principles.

G: Right! And I think a lot of our outreach projects, WPI does an enormous amount of education outreach that has exactly the same goal. Right like the Worcester K-12 schools, can we reach into local community centers, but there’s something, and I don’t even mean there to be a but, like I value and participate in many of those activities and I think it’s amazing that we do all of that. At the same time there’s something different about like taking the thing that we like package for the general public and having be this totally separate thing from the silo of like WPI students existing on campus. Which is a lot of why I really wish, without COVID, we could’ve made this like mixed classroom model, but, given that we can’t, can we do something kind of close to it and set us up to be able to do that in the future.

N: Yeah, because currently it is knowledge without application to people who really really need that knowledge and need the access to it. So, that’s fantastic.

G: And like new students who are learning how to code will eventually go out and get careers that serve a community, and it would probably be helpful if they understood that community through having interacted with them during their college time, instead of only continuing to make things for themselves and for kind of like, an imagined model of…

N: Exactly. There is a bubble that exists right now, between STEM students, the STEM innovation world, and the people who are actually going to be impacted by those inventions.

G: Right, yeah. And then COVID made that bubble, like the boundaries of that bubble, really non-permeable. We literally bubbled campus right?

N: Yeah.

G: Like not even a physical bubble but we set up so many ways that made it impossible for it to interface with the community.

N: Yeah. And even as a student there’s been barriers that don’t actually exist, but because of the COVID perspective, they’re a thing.

G: Yeah, COVID’s made it hard to integrate.

N: Would you say that that’s one of the things you want other researchers to take away from your work?

G: Probably, yeah. I think so. It’s something that I wanna figure out how to do moving forward. Because the other challenge… You know like at the time that we proposed this project, I think we were… I remember like standing on my porch talking to Yunus on the phone, about it. And so it must’ve been just at the beginning of COVID, but I think it was still in that phase of COVID where we were like “Oh we’re only gonna need to like, do this for a couple months and then we’ll be done and we’ll be back to normal.” And I was like “It’ll be so easy!” But… You know even if we go back to a normal year, right? Like even if community members can come to campus, I think there’s still this barrier that maybe we understand better now than we did before? Because of the stuff we had to put in place because of COVID that made it really really clear that it’s so easy to isolate ourselves. That I think we, I’m not gonna be able to fully solve it with PIT-UN funding this year, but it is now a big part of what I wanna be able to do with education access.

N: Yeah, absolutely. So as opposed to having little pockets of knowledge, in Worcester that just kind of are that way because they are, you’d like to see other people embrace the fact that well we have the resources and the ability to teach outside of this community, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t.

G: Right. But we do need to figure out a sustainable way to be able to actually do it that acknowledges the barriers that are there. Because like, even if we could just let the community come to campus, there’s nothing that says that they would. I think that’s maybe a naive model that I had of like “Oh sure we’ll just open up the classroom and add some slots”, but like the class was full. Like it had 110 students in it in a room that holds 115, I couldn’t have actually added people.

N: Yeah, and even beyond the size restriction, your average person in Worcester isn’t gonna be like “lemme go on the WPI website and see if there are public openings for things.”

G: Right and I’m gonna show up at noon Monday Tuesday Thursday Friday for a 1-hour programming class. And so I think, like weirdly, the move to online is making it easier.. Or the move to hybrid is making it a little easier for me to imagine ways to be able to do this interfacing.

N: Yeah. Because now the resources are structured, they’re available, it’s not like, a couple years ago where Echo360 didn’t exist. If you missed a class… Oh well, have fun, text a friend.

G: Well it did, we just weren’t using it!

N: Fantastic! But now that the resources are in place, like we have so many more opportunities to be able to achieve that.

G: Yeah, and I’m not convinced it’s the right thing, like using that is the right thing for the WPI education experience, like please come back to class. But I do think having the tech there means we can imagine how to use it in new ways.

N: Definitely. Are you currently open to students joining this project?

G: Yeah, absolutely. So even though money is running out on this particular piece of the project I am always opened up to working with students on this project.

For WPI students interested in working with Professor Smith on this project, you can contact her through email or stop by her office, FL B25A.

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