There may be no better time to talk with an expert on human-computer interaction than during an academic semester upended by the novel coronavirus. It is late April 2020, a month and a half after the emergence of covid-19 sent college students home early to finish their studies for the year using online tools. Dr. Amy Ogan, the Thomas and Lydia Moran Assistant Professor of Learning Science and the Jacobs Foundation Early Career Fellow at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, is sitting in a sun-streaked room in Pittsburgh, chatting with an interviewer via videoconference.
Dr Ogan has been called back to the United States from a semester of teaching at Carnegie Mellon’s campus in Rwanda, where she also conducts field research, and she’s doing what scientists are trained to do. Adapt. Be creative. Stay passionate. Those qualities, along with a stunning intellect that led Dr. Ogan to pursue three different majors while an undergraduate (yes, you read that right), are keeping her busy even while her in-person research has been upended by the new societal norms of social distancing and distance learning.
“All my research is in schools, so everybody’s going crazy trying to adjust and figure out our research goals,” she says.
A major turning point in Dr. Ogan’s life was the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Sciences, which she attended in the summer of 1998. She grew up in the Elizabethtown area of central Pennsylvania, where her first introduction to computer science was a class in computer math spearheaded by a teacher at her high school who loved computers. A guidance counselor steered her to the class when she recognized Dr. Ogan’s passion for puzzles and logic games. It was the mid-nineties. Not surprisingly, she was the only girl in the class, but she didn’t let the lack of representation deter her.
“I ended up loving [the class], and that’s why I applied to Governor’s School.”
And that led to another turning point: her Governor’s School experience led not only to close lifelong friendships (including a massive Govvie New Year’s Eve party at her parents’ house the following winter with sixty attendees), but also to a realization that she loved both computers and Carnegie Mellon. She loved both so much, in fact, that she wanted a lot more of them in her life. She entered CMU as an undergraduate and wound up majoring in computer science, Spanish, and human-computer interaction (HCI). She stayed at CMU for her doctoral studies, and then joined the faculty. In every way, Dr. Ogan is a CMU lifer—all thanks to Governor’s School.
So, from a successful Govvie to a successful professor, here are Dr. Ogan’s lessons for science students, culled from her own experiences.
Adapt. That’s what Dr. Ogan found she had to do when she faced down college-level classwork during her first semester. It was the first time she felt challenged by a science class, and she admits to a less-than-stellar grade during that first semester that showed she needed to refine her approach to school in order to succeed in college-level science. “I needed to work hard, I needed to ask for help, and I needed to change the approach I was taking to classes,” she says. “It wasn’t going to be something I was just going to sail through.” She credits PGSS for early exposure to difficult problems she had never encountered before—and for creating a community of colleagues who realized together that you don’t have to be perfect in order to be a successful scientist.
“That was a really great lesson,” Dr. Ogan emphasizes. “If you don’t get it at first, try, try again. Effort matters.”
Be creative. Among Dr. Ogan’s challenges as her college career progressed was the issue of representation. She is a woman in a field in which women even today are sorely under-represented (though those stats are changing, and Governor’s School is noted for helping to instill confidence in women in computer science so that they can go on to successful careers). Dr. Ogan found that the confidence instilled in her by her parents and teachers to speak up and add to the conversation, even as an undergrad, gave her the ability to picture herself as a working scientist, even in a field where she was often the only woman in the room. In her telling, it’s about believing in your own worth as a contributing participant in an ongoing conversation that can help bridge that barrier.
“Whether it’s being a woman in computer science, or being somebody from a rural area who didn’t have access to a magnet school, or [being] a person of color who might not feel represented, it’s about believing in [your] own worth,” and speaking up, being present, and contributing to the conversation, Dr. Ogan says.
“[Speaking up] can help you to confirm your status and your stance and your self-worth in [your] field,” Dr. Ogan continues. “It’s just been really important for me as I’ve navigated experiences in which I felt I wasn’t always welcome. And lots of people did that for me, everyone from my parents to the Governor’s School staff, to other really amazing faculty I’ve had at school. They’re there to counter the negative voices we have about not being welcome or not being good enough. Because we are! And we really deserve to be there.”
Stay passionate. Computer science got Dr. Ogan excited at the Governor’s School—but when she matriculated to CMU, it turned out that Spanish literature did, too. Instead of narrowing her focus too early (something she doesn’t recommend until it’s truly time to specialize, such as in a Ph.D. program), she leaned into all of her interests and found that her Spanish major counterbalanced her computer science classes in a way that worked for her.
“I loved computer science, but not exclusively,” she says. “I definitely did want to use my brain in different ways and to think about things differently. I loved taking literature classes [for that reason].”
That passion for learning extended to a third interest: human-computer interaction. “[I realized] what I really loved was technology, but also thinking about psychology and design and how to create things that help people achieve their goals.”
In essence, Dr. Ogan kept one question front and center as she refined her career goals: “Is there a way you can do everything you love?” In her case, the answer was a very satisfying “yes.” Today she studies educational technologies around the world, examining such topics as designing technologies for use in rural Tanzania that support both school and home learning, and developing tools for “smart classrooms.” Among her professional publications are titles including “Automated Pitch Convergence Improves Learning in a Social, Teachable Robot for Middle School Mathematics” and “A climate of support: a process-oriented analysis of the impact of rapport on peer tutoring.”
That leads to the last question of the conversation on this April day in which a pandemic has led to an almost complete shutdown of society and a rise in protests from those who question the efficacy of science to solve the problem of how to arrest a pandemic. In an era where science is being questioned in all arenas, what is the value of science to society?
Dr. Ogan laughs, but we both know the question is truly a matter of life and death. “One thing that we really need to get out there in the public is that science is a process,” she stresses. “One issue that’s arising over and over again right now is the general public’s feeling that scientists always need to have the right answer. And, if they don’t have the right answer right now, or if it doesn’t stay the same answer [with further investigation and refinement], the scientific process is useless and we might as well not listen to science and scientists and experts in general.”
“What scientists should be providing at any moment in time is the most up-to-date, best understanding of the world we currently have,” Dr. Ogan continues. “[Science is] intended to support people, to support their goals, to support their health, to support their ability to put themselves forward into a better place. That is one of the disconnects we’ve really been seeing. If the scientific advice has changed based on the accrual of new data, we have to be understanding of the fact that the scientific process is about refining ourselves towards a better and better solution.”
That’s an argument for opening the doors to scientific careers as widely as possible, and especially in today’s era making sure those doors are welcoming to anyone who wants to go through them. What’s important, in other words, isn’t a first-year college transcript or the occasional C in a tough subject. It’s far more crucial to stay creative, adaptable, and passionate about science. That’s what led Amy Ogan from a central Pennsylvania high school with one computer class, to the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Sciences, to a major university faculty appointment and a wide-ranging global career. And, if you’re a current, future, or even past Govvie reading this article right now, it’s what can lead you there, too.
For more information about Dr. Amy Ogan’s research, visit https://www.amyogan.com.