My story

There is always a way to do something you want. If you care about it enough, even if you haven't got the marks or there's some other blocker, you can always find a way around it.

My first choice was medicine, but I didn't get in and I didn't really care. So that tells you something. Not getting into medicine was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I ended up studying a Bachelor of Science. I was going to do genetics, but I ended up doing all computer science subjects in the end, followed by honours in computer science and a PhD in computer science education. I also have a graduate diploma in teaching. It was my experience teaching data science to my year 10's and 11's which inspired the creation of the Australian Data Science Education Institute (ADSEI).

My job title as of today is the Executive Director of the Australian Data Science Education Institute. My mission is to ensure that all Australian students have the opportunity to learn STEM and Data Science skills in the context of projects that empower them to solve problems and make a positive difference to the world.

In my career I've had opportunities to share my knowledge not only to school students but also to the wider public via the superstars in STEM program, something which was unexpected but amazing. I've also just written a book, It's called Raising Heretics: teaching kids to change the world. Outside of work, my life is all about people. It's about spending time with my family. It's about catching up with my friends. It's about connecting with people. That's everything to me.

Starting Data Science Education Institute

I started out my career as a computer science academic and my research was in computer science education. My whole thing was trying to make programming easier to learn and more accessible to people. After a while in research I felt like my research wasn't really having an impact. It wasn't making a difference in a classroom. So I wound up leaving academia and becoming a teacher.

One thing I figured out with my PhD was that, really, the programming language was less important than the motivation behind why students needed to use programming.

If they wanted to learn, they would learn. And if you use a toy programming language, they are less keen on learning because it feels like it isn't giving them skills they can use in real life. This was confirmed for me when I was teaching. In one of the subjects I was teaching, we were doing the toy approach of getting them to program robots to follow lines, and they hated it. Whereas the other subject I was teaching I had control over the content, so I had them doing projects to support scientists and to meet their computational and data needs. They loved it and they would keep working on it outside of school, even after the subject was finished, after they left school and it was really powerful.

When we started teaching the year 10s to program in the context of data science instead of toys, it was amazing.  Suddenly, they weren't saying, why are you making me do this? Now they're saying this is amazing and I'm using it elsewhere.

So that's why I quit teaching. I wanted all kids to have that opportunity and not just the kids in my classes. I started up an organization called the Australian Data Science Education Institute, which is a charity dedicated to teaching kids data science, stem, and critical thinking skills through authentic projects that give them the power to actually make change in their own communities.

Doing cancer research in the classroom

The first computational science project that I ran with my year 11's, was the first time I'd come up with the idea of "let's talk to some scientists and figure out what they need and, and see if the students can do it". That year we had two options for the students, we worked with a Marine biologist who had some seal data, which was awesome. But we also worked with a molecular biologist who was doing cancer research and two of my students took that project and ran with it to the extent that it's still being used in that researcher's work today. And this was a project in 2011 and it made a material difference to cancer research. Not many year 11's can say they've done cancer research.

To get this project started I used my academic connections to find a researcher who knew enough computer science to know what he needed, but he didn't have the skills or the time to build it. He was trying to match micro RNA sequences from his research in large databases and large data sets. Originally it was taking him weeks to do that. And the students in my classes, Chris and Matt, wrote a program that enabled him to do it in 20 minutes!

That experience was really the roots of the Australian Data Science Education Institute.

From research to executive director

Looking back at my schooling, I feel like I never learned how to study. I never knew how, and I could never see the point of studying. To be honest, I was very unmotivated and that was one of the things that always led me to reassure my students, when they were stressed and calling themselves lazy, that when they found the thing that they really cared about laziness wouldn't be an issue anymore. It was just that they hadn't found anything worth doing yet, and it's a serious indictment of our education system that we don't give kids anything worth doing much of the time. You know, we don't give them the possibility, the power to make change or or the understanding of why we're teaching them this stuff.

After finishing my PhD and working in research for a while I left academia but didn't go straight into teaching. My second child was due and they were doing a round of redundancies and I took a package because I wasn't driven enough to do the research. It was fairly clear to me that you had to be obsessed to make research work as a career. So I took a package and I did a lot of different things before starting ADSEI. I was a project officer for the Australian breastfeeding association. I did pro bono communications work for Oxfam, and then I started doing curriculum development for John Monash Science School. This is where things started to change. Within a year of starting to do that, I was actually teaching in a school and that was the beginning of all of my current life really.

My advice to you

My advice to anyone reading this is find your people, because if you have your people around you, you can do anything. If you have those supportive mentors and the people who get it and are passionate about the same things, then you can achieve anything. But if you don't have that support, things can be really hard.

So have faith in yourself. When someone tries to put you down, learn to tell the difference between someone putting you down and someone giving you useful feedback, because I gave way too many people the benefit of the doubt.

Another piece of advice would be to work on developing skills in critical thinking. I wish I knew this when I was younger. It helps you on a personal level as well as professionally, to be able to dissect what someone says, and know the bits you should pay attention to, and the bits that you can safely discard. It is a really important skill and it's become a huge focus of my work.

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