Graduate Student Spotlight: Ernest Garrison Finds Joy in Helping Others

September 19, 2019

One of the newest graduate students in the Department of Informatics is a familiar face in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). Prior to joining the Ph.D. program this fall, Ernest Garrison was assistant director of the Office of Access and Inclusion (OAI), working tirelessly to recruit and support students who are underrepresented in engineering and information and computer sciences. Now Garrison — himself a first-generation college student — is ready to transition from staff back to student. Here, he talks about his work for OAI, the journey from his hometown of Detroit to UCI, and how the Great Recession of 2008 and a summer algebra class in 2016 helped him find his calling.

Ernest Garrison giving opening remarks at a symposium event at the Cove at UCI Applied Innovation. (Photo: Grace Wood)

First, let’s talk about your work at OAI. What are some of the programs you’ve helped lead?
We definitely focus on underrepresented groups in STEM. Through our OAI Scholars Network, there’s a two-week summer transition program for incoming freshman in engineering and computer science. Half of the time, it’s a boot camp of physics, chemistry and calculus, so they’re prepared for their first quarter, and the other half is all about projects. For example, a team of young ladies created a “magic mirror” powered by Raspberry Pi. The mirror is connected to your phone via Bluetooth, so everything your phone can display, this mirror will display as well. You can also do voice commands, like “set an alarm for this,” or even take a selfie when looking in the mirror.

Our ASPIRE [Access Summer Program to Inspire, Recruit and Enrich] two-week residency program for high school juniors and seniors is another project-based engineering and computer science course. A crowd favorite from last year’s program was a retro gaming system with 3,600 games. The small and organic shell was homemade with a laser cutter. There’s a gutted-out computer monitor, and everything is interconnected through Raspberry Pi, which is the foundation of a lot of the programs that we run. The buttons and joystick came from a $60 Amazon kit, so it was very simply made, very simply done.

Then, during a recent INSPIRE camp — a similar program but for community college students — instead of building a desktop gaming system, one team created a six-foot version reminiscent of the arcade games I played when I was young.

Student projects created in just two weeks: a “magic mirror” created during the summer transition program for incoming freshman in engineering and computer science; a desktop retro gaming system created during the ASPIRE residency program for high school juniors and seniors; and a full-size arcade gaming system created during the INSPIRE residency program for community college students.

Also, through the Nicholas Academic Center (NAC) in Santa Ana, I started NAC for Apps, teaching high-achieving, first-generation low-income high school students from Santa Ana how to develop Android applications. The Saturday class is free, and we even pay for their lunch. In groups of two, they derive and build their own apps. We use MIT app inventor, which is great for someone with no experience, and I convinced my boss to buy old-school $20 smartphones from Amazon — shout out to Sharnnia Artis [assistant dean of OAI] and Erica Juarez [administrative coordinator] for making this happen. So we use the computers that we have in the UCI lab and these phones. At a showcase in May, we awarded prizes, giving mircrocomputers to the second- and third-place winners and a full scholarship to our ASPIRE program to the first-place winners.

Of course, I mentor current UCI students as well. It’s my personal goal that when they leave here, they feel empowered, positive and motivated. Every Monday night, OAI hosts the 4.0 Club from 7-9 p.m. in the McDonnell Douglas Engineering Auditorium (MDEA). We have dinner together and study with graduate mentors and upperclassmen.

Ernest Garrison, sporting red socks and resting his chin on his hand, poses for a photo with many of the student groups he helped throughout the 2018-2019 academic year. [Photo: Wadieh “Wade” Sobh]

But you’re not just a local mentor. Can you also talk about your out-of-state work?
We have been helping a charter school in Pennsylvania for the past two years. It started with our “Train the Trainer” program, where trainers came to UCI with zero knowledge of quadcopters, Raspberry Pi and all the other project-based things that we do, and we put them through a two-week boot camp. Then they implemented what they learned into their curriculums at their high schools. One of our participants was Eva Porter, a biology teacher at Cristo Rey High School in Philadelphia. She implemented the quadcopter course and, once a week, we had meetings over the phone to make sure she was on the right path. At their symposium, I went out and made sure all their quadcopters flew.

I also went to New Orleans this year to train a group of educators from STEM NOLA, a nonprofit focused on STEM education for inner-city youth in Louisiana. They had no experience with the Raspberry Pi, and they also had no lab. So I ordered and shipped everything they needed, went out there to set everything up, taught them Raspberry Pi and then had them build their own autonomous cars. Now they’re excited and ready to go teach!

And while I was down in New Orleans, I met the president of the Broadcom Foundation [Paula Golden], who is actually one of the spearheads of our ASPIRE/INSPIRE funding, so she’s almost like a fairy godmother. She invited me to go to Phoenix to be part of the Broadcom Masters International, an annual conference for middle and high school students who have participated in science fairs and STEM fairs across the world. I went in May, and there were 27 students from 24 different countries. I met and mentored amazing youngsters who had developed all kinds of practical applications. They weren’t making games; they were trying to make lives better. Their inventions were saving animals and helping people who are blind or who suffer from dementia. It was a life-changing event that gave me a newfound perspective.

So what made you decide to switch gears and apply for the Ph.D. program here in informatics?
This is honestly the most enjoyable, most rewarding position I’ve ever had, but I know that this shift is going to put me in a position where I can help even more students, on a larger scale. I’ll be studying with Associate Professor of Informatics and Education Kylie Peppler, so I’m really excited about it. And all that I do through OAI will continue in my absence.

What will be the focus of your research?
I want to help students learn in unique and innovative ways, and I want to help them become not just engineers and computer scientists, but innovators in society, people who can solve problems. So although my research area is a bit undefined at the moment, it will be something around project-based learning and helping others, because that’s my joy. If everyone else is happy around me, I feed off of that.

What about your own learning experiences? How did you first get interested in computing?
I grew up in Detroit, and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity in schools [for advanced STEM learning], but I was that kid who was always taking apart phones and electronics. So my joy was always there in technology and math and computer science, but I didn’t know how to channel it. After high school, I just went to work, because I wanted to support myself and help out my family. I did sales for years, and it wasn’t until 2008, when the market crashed, that I had to make a decision. I was 26 years old without anything in the bank or a college degree, so what was I going to do? I decided to go to community college, and I dived in. That’s when I realized, through mentors at school, that I could do something in STEM. So I got my undergraduate degree in math and went on to get my MBA in information systems.

From there, I was an IT consultant, doing work in Japan and then Manhattan, and then I was offered a position at a startup in Santa Ana. At the end of that project, I was looking for the next big thing, and in the meantime, I saw a position to teach algebra. “Okay, I’ll teach over the summer,” I thought. But I had so much fun with those youngsters, and when they told me how much they appreciated my time, it was a just a feeling that I hadn’t felt before. I saw their growth from being a problem child to star pupils, and I knew from there on I wanted to go into STEM education.

I transitioned into the director of an after-school program, and through that, I found out about the position at UCI, where I’ve been now for two and a half years. I’m lucky to have found UCI. I would have had the same ambition but would not have the skill set without the programs that were here. I’ve been surrounded by a lot of great people who have let me learn and grow and be creative. We didn’t have the innovator squad here at UCI, and now we do [which helps students build their own inventions and gives them opportunities to teach in the community]. We had one ASPIRE program; now we have three. I feel like a lot of great things have happened, and I’ve got plenty more to do.

So what are your long-terms plans?
More than anything, I see myself in the classroom — that’s where I have the most fun. I find great pleasure in discovering new things and new topics. There were times when I was doing IT consulting that I had to do things that were rough, like let go of [an underperforming] team. I don’t want to put people down or take things away from them. I want to uplift them and give them opportunities. I’m just a poor guy from Detroit who got lucky. Hard work plus opportunity — that’s what equals success. Some people work hard, but they don’t get the opportunity. So no one can tell what the future is, but I want to do something involving working with students and helping them in whatever way I can.

Shani Murray