Postdoc Spotlight: Joey Huang Aims to Increase Inclusivity in Computer Science

March 28, 2023

A new, first-of-its-kind undergraduate course at UC Irvine is being offered through the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) this spring quarter. In “Info 190: Recrafting Tech Information,” students will construct and program a robotic loom to weave designs of their own making, blending mathematics, computing and textiles. Informatics Postdoctoral Scholar Joey Huang helped develop the course materials, including the Robo-Loom prototype, with funding from an NSF Postdoctoral Supplement Award. Her work is part of the larger “ReCrafting Computer Science: Concretizing Computational Thinking Through Tangible Fiber Crafts ” project, a collaborative effort between researchers from UCI and Carnegie Mellon University that has been supported through a $1.5 million NSF grant.

Huang received her Ph.D. in learning and developmental Sciences and a minor in inquiry methodology from Indiana University Bloomington, and this project reflects her postdoctoral research into computational thinking, educational technology and STEM learning. Through her work at UCI’s Creativity Labs and the Connected Learning Lab, she has been exploring how best to design novel educational technology that broadens STEM participation. Here, she talks about why she transitioned from educational psychology to learning sciences; how computational thinking fits into our daily lives (including at the grocery store); and how collaborative gender-neutral tools can increase engagement. And if learning environments that promote equity and inclusivity are of interest to you, connect with her on LinkedIn, because she is now on the job market!

What first sparked your interest in computing?
I grew up in Taiwan and then came to the States for my master’s, so most of my education was in Taiwan. Overall, Asia values STEM a lot, but I didn’t consider myself a girl in STEM at all. When I was a kid, I was always very good in writing and in Mandarin, and things like geography and history. I was good at math, but I had no idea about computing at that time. We had a computer class, but it was only to learn Microsoft Office — Excel, Word, etc. It never went deeper than the applications.

But then I came to the States, and I started realizing I could do more than what I thought I could do. That is the amazing part of higher education here. I got my master’s degree at U.T. Austin, and although my focus was on educational psychology, I took a lot of statistics courses and used programs such as SAS and R to get the analyses I needed. I didn’t think further about computing until the second year of my Ph.D. at Indiana University, when I took a class about computational thinking, which ended up becoming my career interest.

What was it about computational thinking that caught your attention?
Computational thinking is a kind of thinking that you can apply in your daily life. When you go grocery shopping and you’re thinking about the aisle numbers at the store and the fastest way to buy everything on your list, it’s a kind of algorithm. You are thinking, “First, I’m going to aisle three, then nine, then seven.” It’s finding the most efficient route to get the stuff you need, and the idea of carrying this over to education — I found that fascinating. It’s a skill set you can learn through programming and other computational tools.

So, I took some online courses and some classes offered at Indiana University, and I self-taught myself computing. Also around that same time, I started working part time at the Center of Excellence for Women and Technology at Indiana University. The center recruits female scholars on campus to promote women in STEM, and I was the lead intern for 3D printing and design. 3D printing can also involve programming, so a lot of my interests were intersecting with each other.

I took a social network analysis course, and I did web crawling by writing a Python program, collecting data from the web. So it started with my research interest, and then that motivated me to learn more about programming and computing, which led to my dissertation and now my postdoc position at UCI.

Can you talk about some of your postdoc work?
Yes, I’m wrapping up a project right now, funded through an NSF CAREER award for my adviser, Kylie Peppler. So for that project, we’ve studied how the design of materials can be gendered. We went to a local school in Orange County, and we gave existing commercial toolkits to students and asked which was more attractive to them. We had the students put the materials in different buckets based on if they thought the materials were more for boys or for girls, and we had them rate everything on a scale of 1 to 5.

It’s not surprising that a lot of the electronics parts involving wires were seen as more for boys. But Legos turned out to be very interesting. It was more gender neutral, with both boys and girls thinking, “this is for me!”

The other interesting finding was when we added an art component to the Arduino electronic toolkit by including colored paper and pencils and asking students to design their own Internet of Things device or a smart house as a paper craft. Separately, the electronic parts were viewed as more for boys and our paper craft was viewed as gender neutral, but when we put the two components together in one Ziploc bag, the activity as a whole was viewed as gender neutral. We had a hypothesis that adding an art component might help but we didn’t know if it would work in reality, so that was amazing.

Our goal was to find ways to better design these toolkits for an educational purpose. So instead of those tedious-looking circuit boards that we learned with as kids, with the positive and negative circuitry, we wanted to find something where when students received it, they would feel like it belonged to them and empower them to think, “I can do this!”

And what about the new course being offered at UCI?
This course is connected with the recrafting computer science project, and we already piloted this course for eight weeks last fall [at CMU]. The [10-week] course we’re offering in the spring at UCI will have a maximum of 25 students, so we can work in small groups and make sure the quality of the collaboration is good and the students have close interactions with each other.

During the course, students will build their own robotic loom. It’s a Jacquard loom, which is computational, meaning you can preprogram the weaving draft design you want. Computer software builds the input and then you run it. So instead of doing traditional weaving with your hand, the Robo-Loom we’re building automates the process. And the nice thing about it is students will also learn how to read the weaving draft and use metrics math to design and calculate the weaving drafts they want to design in class.

Joey Huang standing behind a table with the Robo-Loom and some yarn.
Joey Huang with the Robo-Loom for the Recrafting Tech Information course at UCI.

Did you make any changes based on the pilot version of the course?
Yes. For the one at CMU, they talk first about weaving and metrics math, and they walk through the mechatronics and the engineering design of the loom. But we are hoping to bring the design forward. We want the students to think about the design first before they jump into the nitty-gritty of STEM concepts. The design is always the fun part, where you put the color together, you play with the yarn, and you start thinking about what you want to weave.

We want students to walk through the iterative design processes first, even if that means their design is too idealistic and not something they could probably make in the end. They will have to learn how to accommodate and make affordances for the loom itself in the process. So that’s the part we don’t have at CMU, and that’s a part we want to add at UCI. Here in ICS, we have very strong art and design students, so we’re changing it a little bit.

How might this type of course encourage more diversity in computer science?
In two ways — one is through the aspect of project collaboration, and the other is the design aspect.

Studies have shown that having a more collaborative environment for women and for underrepresented groups makes it more inviting for them to join computing. In a collaborative environment — especially if it’s your first time working on something — partnering with a peer instead of working alone helps with that process. So as people are assembling their loom, students feel better when they’re working in a group. We hear these comments more and more, which is why I think collaboration is a huge part in making this space feel like an open and supportive environment.

And with design, we encourage students to think creatively about their weaving projects. They will start with tools like papers and pencils and just start drawing something, and then transfer it to the weaving design software we created. Also, crafting is traditionally viewed as more feminine, so that’s why we’re putting a lot of value on the weaving and design aspect.

For Women’s History Month, any women in STEM trailblazers you want to spotlight?
I want to acknowledge Jeannette Wing. She’s a computer scientist, and in 2006, she published a piece, “Computational Thinking,” and it went viral. It was about computational thinking for all, and that’s part of why we now have computer science education in some K-12 schools. It’s not a state requirement here in California yet, but in Indiana, they made computer science part of the middle school required curriculum in 2019.

When I read [Wing’s] article while earning my Ph.D., it was so inspiring. That’s when I thought, “I think I want to do something with this.” The article itself is relatively short, but she was arguing that for the 21st century, computing must be the same as writing, reading and arithmetic — it’s becoming a common skill we all have to learn. It’s not just an “ivory tower” concept for people in computer science. Also, kids need to know how to judge right and wrong uses for something like Chat GPT, so ethical AI is also one of my research interests. We can never know what industry will invent, but we can always educate our kids to know how and when to use such innovations.

Shani Murray