Lauren Bricker in the classroom at Seattle's Lakeside School. (Photos by Annie Laurie Malarkey)

Lakeside School in Seattle produced a couple of the most famous computer scientists in the world four decades ago, and the subject is still an important one for many students at the school today. One reason is Lakeside computer science faculty member Lauren Bricker, our latest Geek of the Week.

The University of Washington computer science alum thinks of herself as a “geek generator,” as she explains in her answers to our questions below. Continue reading for more about Bricker, as well as her insights from the front lines of computer science education — including her advice to aspiring computer scientists and her thoughts on getting more women involved in the field.

Name: Lauren Bricker

Job, hobby and/or other geeky pursuit: “Geek Generator.” Computer Science Faculty at Lakeside School

Coolest thing about what you do: I’m inspired by the enthusiasm of my students every day.

Recently I had a student approach me to ask about her programming assignment, and told me she only had to add comments to her program before turning it in. I told her that best practice is to comment one’s code as you’re writing it, not after the fact.” She looked sheepish, smiled, said “Awkward!” and walked away. I knew this stemmed from the fact that she takes pride in her work, and she wants me to know that.

Every day I come from my classroom with interesting stories. I have students who try to pick apart my slides, quizzes and programs. At first I took this personally because I felt I wasn’t doing a good enough job in preparing for class. Then I realized that in fact, I’ve prepared them so well that they could (and can, and do) pick my work apart. If they hadn’t learned the material so well, they wouldn’t be able to find the mistakes.

In the five years I’ve been at Lakeside, I’ve become more than just at a teacher. I’m a conduit and a river guide. They know what they want to learn, I just help them find the right resources and put them on the right direction. I’ve become a human compiler, human calendar, confidante, cheerleader, mentor, help desk, and the keeper of a snack drawer. My job is constantly changing, but it definitely keeps me busy and entertained.

It’s especially great when students return to tell me that they’re either majoring in Computer Science, they help others taking CS in college, or they take another CS class in college and tell me it was “easy.”  One student, my first year at Lakeside, took only the first semester course, not the full year. When I saw her two years later, she told me she was a TA for an intro to CS class at her university. Another student who needed a lot of extra help in class wrote to thank me: “My college roommate is trying to major in CS and I often help with his homework. I just want to thank you for making that possible.”

What’s the secret to getting more women and girls interested and involved in computer science?

The answer is two-fold: we first have to start by teaching all middle, and perhaps elementary, school students the computational thinking skills needed in computer science. At the same time, parents and mentors need to specifically expose girls to technology and encourage them to use it.  Nurturing their passion in constructive ways will help retain more of the girls in technology fields as they grow older.

Recently I heard this question: How can a student know they are interested in a subject if they are never exposed to it? All students get some biology in middle schools, even though the goal is not to have everyone become a biologist or doctors. The skills acquired by doing computer science are applicable in many other domains, we should start teaching it earlier than high school or college. If all students are required to learn computer science at a younger age, then more girls are apt to feel confident with technology as they get older. Even girls who don’t think they have a knack for technology often do, they just need a little more time to gain the confidence boys generally have.

There are other ways to get girls interested in technology, even if a school doesn’t specifically have a computer science curriculum.  Playing board games, encouraging them to use and modify computers or computer games, downloading visual programming languages like Scratch, having them sign up for a technology camp or after school club, particularly one that is for girls only.

Finally, female mentors can be incredibly valuable. If a young woman shows an interest in science or technology, getting her connected with established women in the community goes a long way toward giving her encouragement, role models, and gives her a sounding board for advice and opportunities.

Your best piece of advise to aspiring computer scientists?

Computer science or programming is a complex subject matter, and may not come easily to most people.  The key is perseverance.

If you like to play with or program computers, believe in yourself, stick with it and find resources that will help you learn how to do it. Be patient; it takes time to learn ANY new skill. Generally people are smarter and more capable than they give themselves credit for.  What you really need is resilience, self-advocacy, and a willingness to seek answers on your own and practice, practice, practice.

I started programming computers as part of a math class in high school, but I always felt less adequate because the boys I was friendly with seemed to be able to write code quicker and knew more about programming than me. I loved playing with the computers lab but I wasted too much time feeling embarrassed that I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t want them to see me struggle with the learning – If it came so naturally to them, why wasn’t it coming naturally to me?

What I didn’t realize at the time was that their parents were engineers, both had grown up constantly exposed to engineering and programming and both had TRS-80s in their houses (one even had a DISK DRIVE, wow). They practiced programming in their free time, and got help from their engineering families. Now I’ve had the chance to learn, practice and gain my own confidence.

Your best advice to people trying to improve computer science education?

We need to stop focusing on programming and becoming programmers as the end result of a computer science education. Instead we need to focus on the critical thinking skills that a student gains from taking a CS class, like computational thinking, problem decomposition, troubleshooting, debugging, self-advocacy, resiliency and creativity. Problem decomposition is easily transferable to other academic domains, such as writing an paper for a history class.  Another benefit: Your child might be able to troubleshoot problems with your home audio visual or computer system.

What does it mean to you to be a geek?

Anyone who has a true passion and knowledge in a subject, finds “beauty” in that knowledge, and wants to share it with others is a ‘geek.’ Most people think of geeks as a negative term, and associate it only with people who are heavily into technology, math and sciences, but I’ve met art history geeks, biology geeks, word geeks, movie geeks, travel geeks. Whatever you’re passionate about – don’t be afraid to show it, and don’t worry about labels.

Geekiest thing(s) you’ve ever done, built, or worn: 

My geeky maker ways started early, mostly taking things apart and putting them back together. At 13 I took apart my bicycle, painted it, then put it all back together, with no instructions and no manual. This summer, two students and I assembled the MakerBot 3D printer now used at Lakeside.

Geeky things I’ve worn:

    1. Knit myself Princess Leia “buns” for a Halloween costume.
    2. Made myself into a Blue Man, where I was so convincing my friends couldn’t determine my gender.
    3. But I think the geekiest thing I ever made and wore was designing the Pastry Powered T(o)uring Machine bicycle jersey. Geeks identify each other on rides, because they laugh at the joke on the back. Actually it’s a joke, within a joke, within a joke (see this site, and a great article in here: PDF.) Someone even said to one of my “teammates” on the Seattle to Portland bike ride this year: “That’s the nerdiest jersey I’ve ever seen!”  I consider it quite a compliment.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life: My calendar and to do lists are a must for staying organized. There’s something about writing it down that helps to solidify my schedule and keeps me on track. Each day or two I MOSCOW my to do lists: I prioritize them in order of Must, Ought, Should, Could and most importantly Won’t!

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac – especially because it’s *nix underneath.

Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisko? The geek girl in me thinks I should say Janeway, but I have to go with Kirk.  The original Star Trek was the first science fiction I watched with my dad when I was little, and it was something we bonded over.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Definitely the transporter; I love to drive but traffic drives me insane. It’s a different story if I’m on a bike ride or on a road trip, then it’s *about* the trip.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … I’d invest in some of the ideas that come from my advanced computer science students. I taught a project-based course in 2010 where we did Android, web-based and Arduino development. The classroom had a lot of that dynamic start-up energy. The ideas resulting from the students’ brainstorming during their project work was amazing. I hope to be able to run the class again.

I once waited in line for … The chance to throw a ball and dunk Jeff Bezos in a dunk tank at an Amazon.com picnic. I think I missed…

Your geek role models: The two I can think of at the moment are both teachers. Ellen Spertus, crowned Sexiest Geek Alive 2001, is a fantastic computer scientist, professor and mentor, and an all around mensch. Dean Ballard, who was a software engineer at Microsoft and a math teacher at Lakeside, just takes such joy in the beauty of math and computer science, and he’s incredibly supportive as well.

Greatest Game In History: I was particularly fond of the stand-up console machines in high school. I played Tempest most often because I loved warping between the levels. Actually more than the warp, I loved the spinner user interface on the arcade machines.  But my favorite game was one I couldn’t find that often – called Space Duel; an Asteroids-like game where two players were tethered, so you had to cooperate move around. It was one of the inspirations for my PhD thesis topic on cooperative learning.

Best Gadget Ever: I honestly thought about answering this with “the pencil.” Seriously, I have such a hard time picking one because I’m a gadget junkie. I’m particularly fond of kitchen gadgets, power tools, gardening tools or gadgets for doing arts and crafts. Other than my computer and my smart phone I use my Garmin, for keeping track of where I run or bike, about five times a week.

First computer: The first computers I used and programmed were the TRS-80s and the Apple IIGSs in 11th grade in Michigan. The first computer I co-owned was a Mac Plus.

Current phone: iPhone 4.

Favorite app: Probably Messaging. I use it all the time — I’m terrible about calling people, and texting is the ultimate way to get information from someone asynchronously, but in a timely manner. That plus the camera app — I think I use them combined most of the time.

Favorite hangout: Any coffee shop after a run or a bike ride with my friends.

Favorite cause: There are so many. I tend to gravitate to educational and environmental causes, so a few years ago I joined Social Venture Partners. Through SVP, members pool their money to support eight different non profit entities each year. Essentially SVP gives them capital and resources to reach the organization’s growth and stability goals.

Most important technology of 2012: Smartphones and mobile devices. I’m not sure I could survive the day without “consulting the magic rectangle” (my iPhone) as my friend Liz says. It’s not just my phone, it’s my iPod, navigation system, notepad, camera, something to read when I’m bored, a way to check email, a way to connect with friends and my kids, and an entertainment center for my 12-year old. Thinking beyond that, there are parts of the world where some people only have a cell phone as their Internet platform.   One of the reasons why I so enjoyed teaching mobile development to my advanced students was because they also have to think in terms of the smaller resources (screen size/memory) in those types of situations.

Most important technology of 2015: Just like the laser printer revolutionized desk top publishing, I think affordable 3D printing is just going to revolutionize “making” in general. My older son had replaced the battery pack in his N64 rumble pack – but had destroyed the case to do it. Within a day, having never used Google Sketchup before, he modeled a whole new case that worked just as well as the old one. I’m so impressed with the objects on Thingiverse and Shapeways. Some fill needs, some are just for fun, but I think this is only the beginning.

Words of advice for your fellow geeks: Make time to mentor budding geeks-in-training, particularly under-represented demographics. Show them what they can do with technology, encourage them to stick with it and believe in themselves. It’s incredibly rewarding.

Sites: Brickware … Lakeside School profile page

Twitter: @brickware


Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.

Does someone you know deserve this distinguished honor? Send nominations to tips@geekwire.com.

[Geek of the Week photography by Annie Laurie Malarkey, annielaurie@geekwire.com.]

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