Matt Smith, a second-year graduate student in Ben de Bivort’s lab and member of the MCO graduate program, pulls a large manila envelope out of his backpack. He undoes the string fastener and gently slides the contents onto the table; rather than journal articles or tubes of fruit fly larvae (his lab studies the neurological basis of behavior in Drosophila), it’s a stack of colorfully decorated thank-you letters from a sixth-grade class in Houston, Texas. One letter from a student named Joshua includes a drawing of Matt wearing laboratory goggles and says, “Thank you for coming all the way here. I learned alot [sic] from you, you really convinced me to become a programmer.” Another is entirely covered with blue and pink hearts drawn in crayon. “She really liked it when she realized the code we wrote was for taking selfies,” Matt says, laughing.
While many Harvard graduate students participate in outreach efforts during their studies, Matt is one of the few to travel 1,800 miles to do it. He contacted a friend who teaches sixth grade at Fondren Middle School in Houston about setting up a video conference to talk to her class about his path to his chosen career in science, but they quickly recognized that it would be much more impactful if he visited the students in person. “A big draw for me is that Fondren Middle School is a Title I school, meaning it receives financial aid from the government (around 98% of all students are from low-income families and qualify for free lunch). The student body is about 40% black and 55% Latino,” Matt says. “All of this resonated with me because I come from a similar background. I spent a portion of my childhood living in Detroit below the poverty line – my family qualified for food stamps. Being a minority myself (I’m black), I hoped to provide the kids a living example of someone who started in a similar situation and has become relatively ‘successful’ in science.”
Though his family had limited resources, Matt credits his parents, family, and close friends with nurturing his passion for science and engineering from an early age, and has fond memories of spending hours in science museums and playing with electronics kits. He initially wanted to be a doctor to help find a cure for a rare form of early-onset arthritis, from which his mother was suffering. He ultimately attended Michigan State University, where a biochemistry professor named Dr. Zachary Burton unknowingly changed Matt’s life when he suggested he apply for a grant from Harvard’s IDEAS (Increasing Diversity and Education Access to Sciences) program to support his undergraduate studies. “The IDEAS program was a crucial part of my education and entrance into the field, because I was chosen despite having no previous experience working in a lab. It gave me my first exposure to performing research, and I fell in love with it,” Matt says, smiling from behind his square, black-framed glasses. “The people I met in those labs were passionate about really interesting concepts on the cutting edge of science, and I’m fascinated by the process of designing questions and figuring out ways to answer them that nobody has done before.”
Matt approached his presentation at Fondren like a scientist, by asking the question, “How can I get a class of 180 students excited about science while teaching them something new in a way that is hands-on, inexpensive, and portable?” In addition to presenting his background and graduate research, he decided early on that he wanted the students to do an exercise with a major computer science component. “Talking about biology was a given: it’s my field and I love it. But I believe we’re living in a time of incredible growth in computer-based technology, and computer science is quickly becoming an essential part of education in many fields. It’s also a great learning tool; there are many interesting ways to use programming to visualize math and make esoteric concepts easier to comprehend.”
Inspired by the Raspberry Pi foundation, a group that created an affordable “Raspberry Pi” single-board computer specifically to help young students learn and practice computer science concepts, Matt submitted a project proposal to MCO and the GSAS department of Diversity and Minority Affairs to purchase 25 Raspberry Pi units and accompanying keyboards, monitors, cameras, and accessories, which would be donated to the school after his presentation. His budget granted, Matt flew to Houston on May 23 and met with six sections of ~30 sixth graders at Fondren. He explained his current work in the de Bivort lab, which is investigating the possibility of predicting individuals’ behavior by studying their brains’ neuro-anatomy and physiology. “There is a huge engineering component to our work; Ben [de Bivort] is building a robot in collaboration with Dave Zucker, a former mechanical engineer at Microsoft, to automate many day-to-day experiments, and is an active contributor to projects in the machine learning field such as classifying behavior without the supervision of a human operator,” Matt explains, “so transitioning to talking about computer science was natural.”
The presentation finished, he distributed the Raspberry Pi computers to the students for the hands-on portion. They had to assemble the different component parts (learning about circuits and voltage), and then write a couple of lines of code to instruct the computer to take a photo with the camera (learning about programming). “It went much better than I expected. The kids were all really engaged and excited, especially when they figured out how to take selfies with the cameras. They just had a blast,” he says, sifting through the pile thank-you letters that say, over and over again, how much the students enjoyed his visit.
Their teacher Emily Cracolici says that, in addition to providing a fun introduction to programming, Matt’s visit taught her students a different way of thinking. “We sometimes mistakenly teach students that there is one correct way to do something, which causes them to fear failure and wait passively for someone to give them directions. When trying to program the computers, however, there was no strict manual for the students to follow. Instead, Matt showed them that the smartest individuals don’t always know the answer, but they are willing to put in the effort and test out different theories to find it.”
Based on the interest generated by his visit, Matt is working on plans to create a summer computer science program at Fondren with organizational support from Harvard, in which students will pitch programming ideas directly to him and other Harvard volunteers who then help them the students with coding and executing the project. “I think it’s really important to make these kinds of personal connections with students who likely don’t have much exposure to science and academia in their daily lives. I can remember being their age and idolizing celebrities who did not pursue higher degrees, so a major goal of my visit to Fondren was to be a role model representing the values of intelligence and education,” he says. “A place like Harvard is almost mythical to these students because it’s so far away and seems like it’s beyond their grasp due to their circumstances. By bringing a piece of Harvard to them in person and showing them that a career in science is something that they can obtain, I hope I’ve encouraged some of these students to set their sights on higher education.”
Back in Houston, Emily Cracolici confirms that even one day with Matt has left a lasting impression. “Matt quickly earned the students’ respect and admiration, and was a living example to them of hard work paying off. Although his visit was over a month ago, I still hear students at summer school speaking about how they now have a goal to attend Harvard, which is incredible considering that many of them had not even heard of Harvard before Matt’s presentation.”
Author: Lindsay Brownell