#WomeninSTEM · #WomeninTech · Computer Science · education · inspiration · Technology · women who reign

Women Who Reign: Lien Diaz

“Stand up for what you believe in even if it means standing alone.”

Tell us about yourself along with a fun fact!
I started out as a mathematics and science teacher, and athletic coach. I coached basketball, track and volleyball. I was an assistant coach on a varsity volleyball team that won the district championship four years in a row. That was fun! And I was really proud and honored to be a part of that. I then transitioned into conducting teacher professional development, classroom-based and large scale, with various projects promoting STEM education.

When I first began teaching, I taught using a mathematics curriculum developed with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that was focused on engaging students in learning mathematics in collaborative ways and changing perceptions about teaching and learning mathematics to help promote higher achievement, especially with minority students. This experience was very helpful when I began working at College Board in the Advanced Placement (AP) Program in 2006. I worked with the AP Calculus, AP Statistics and AP Computer Science courses and exams, and when discussions between the NSF and College Board began regarding the equity challenges in computer science education, I knew immediately that I wanted to be on that project. The goal was to develop a new and different college-level computer science course (AP Computer Science Principles) that would help increase participation in computer science and diversify it, that is, increase the number of female students and students of color. The CS Principles project set out to think differently about the needs of the discipline, about the enormous number of career opportunities in this field, and about important concepts and skills needed for a capable digital citizenry in our technologically advanced society that will continue to evolve. The course and assessments include relevant and engaging concepts, including programming, the study of how the Internet works, cybersecurity, data and information, and how computing impacts how we live today. It was piloted for several years in secondary and post-secondary institutions across the nation and in the fall of 2016, more than 2,500 high schools offered CS Principles to over 50,000 students. It is the largest course launch in the history of the AP Program. Working on the CS Principles project has been the highlight of my career so far.  

I was born in Vietnam, grew up in northern Mexico, and lived in the southwest region of the U.S. for over 28 years. I am a mother of four kids, ten-year old twins (boy/girl), and two younger daughters, six and five years old. I enjoy going to baseball games (minor and major leagues) and I’ve been to 21 of 30 major league baseball stadiums! I’m also a fan of good romantic comedies and Ms. Pac-Man.

Describe a challenge you faced or a crossroads in your life that defined your path.
My mother was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago. When I learned this I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to help care for her through the treatment process. She lives in Virginia, I live in Georgia, so I temporarily relocated to be with her. During this time, I was reminded about the incredible strength that we can harness from within ourselves in order to overcome life’s challenges. I learned from her strength each step of the way. She is still not cancer free but she’s healthier and feeling better. This experience has only strengthened my belief in the significance of the human element. Whether it’s in my personal life or in my career, it’s important to remember how connecting with people and working together is key to achieve goals. Sure, it helps if there is a common purpose involved. No, it’s not just because I am a woman with compassionate capabilities. And yes, I believe kindness and compassion can be a person’s strength, not a weakness.

I’ve had the fortune to meet many educators over the years working on the CS Principles project. They are remarkable experts that can be relied on for help and support to achieve goals. Some of them have become good friends. I truly appreciate their work and I care about them. I don’t apologize for that. Building these authentic connections and robust networks of people that share common values is what has helped make the CS Principles project as successful as it is today. These connections and friendships have been the best outcomes of being part of this wonderful CS community.

On a related note, teaching students to connect and work with peers is critical in computer science education. I believe it is important to influence conversations about the teaching and learning of computer science to promote equity, engagement, and success. There is an urgent need to create a different perspective of computer science. Part of this involves changing what studying computer science looks like. For example, many images of computer scientists still show a lone person (usually a male), on a computer writing code. This is very problematic for diversifying the discipline. I would describe the discipline as one that also requires understanding how to solve problems collaboratively and moreover, how to communicate strategies and solutions effectively to individuals, and at scale. This is critical to include as part of defining what studying computer science is like. I advocate that these types of skills will help break through gender, identity and racial barriers. And teaching students these skills, in an equitable manner, in computer science classrooms is invaluable for the discipline.

Who is someone who inspires you? What knowledge has this person imparted?
Some of my inspirations come from people I’ve never met but I’ve embraced their work because their words run through my veins:

       Maya Angelou: Her words give me strength to never give up, to realize that some things aren’t fair but that’s no reason to give in. Some of my favorite poems from her are Phenomenal Woman, Human Family, and Still I Rise.

       Cesar Chavez: I studied at University of Texas at El Paso (Go Miners!) and I was very fortunate to be able to study some exceptional Latino leaders who dedicated their work and their own lives to improve the lives of others. Best lesson learned: Chavez’ leadership as a civil rights activist for migrant farm workers was not about grapes or lettuce, it was always about people.

       President Barack Obama: I consider myself lucky to have witnessed the works of this presidency. Reading The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream was a game changer for me. It helped me take note of the importance of how modern politics will affect our society for many generations to come and it helped me rethink how to approach my work as I aspire to improve on American education. Also, the bold move to set a national agenda to expand CS education gave me hope in continuing to close gender and racial gaps that persist in STEM.

I have met many wonderful educators at all levels throughout my career who have been supportive and provided guidance and I aim to keep their friendships which mean so much to me. I am not able to list all of them and the following are only a few of the many that have influenced me in positive ways, especially while working on the CS Principles project:

Jane Margolis and Joanna Goode, authors of Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race and Computing, and Gail Chapman who all have created Exploring Computer Science. The research conducted as described in Stuck in the Shallow End uncovered the disparities of opportunities to study computer science in low-income urban schools and more affluent high schools. This was important research that propelled my involvement in the CS Principles project.

Owen Astrachan, Professor of the Practice of Computer Science at Duke University. He is a champion for improving instructional practices to promote equity in CS education.I’ve learned so much from his expertise. His leadership is encouraging and his energy is contagious.

And through it all, Jan Cuny at the National Science Foundation has been a significant role model for me, emphasizing that all efforts to broaden participation in computer science must have equity as an ultimate goal. Jan’s remarkable leadership has been my inspiration to lead CS efforts unwavering from this goal.

Describe your ideal job.
My ideal job is being able to make a difference in people’s lives, not just by answering emails, but by connecting with them at many levels. I enjoy talking with people and aim to find ways to collaborate with experts who have diverse perspectives to achieve common goals. Working at a foundation or a collaborative that embraces the strength of individuals to achieve this is what I’d like to build next.

What are your favorite websites, apps, or other tech tools?
My favorite apps:

Pokemon Go: Because it’s very addicting.
Google maps: I seriously could not get anywhere without it!
Duolingo: It’s convenient and easy to use. I’m slowly picking up on Vietnamese, Italian, and Japanese.

What hashtag (#) describes you/defines your life goals or life journey
#standtogether

What song makes you want to dance, gives you courage to face the day, or makes you feel strong?
Dance: “Red Lights” by Tiesto
Sing: Brown-Eyed Girl by Van Morrison
Courage: “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys

Do you have a favorite quote, song lyric, or poem that speaks to you/your journey?
I like inspirational quotes! Here are some that have helped me over time through successes and challenges: Be yourself and don’t be afraid to make mistakes: Remembering this has helped me understand that there is always room to grow, especially when you make mistakes. It also involves remembering where you come from and what you stand for, and never backing down when you’re standing up for something you believe in and that you know is right, even if you’re the only one. I’ll admit this is easier said than done but ultimately, you will find that you might have been the only one in a certain situation, but outside of that there are others that believe in you.

What knowledge would you impart to women in order for them to REIGN their lives?
With busy schedules, constantly jumping over hurdles and dodging obstacles that come your way, it is important to make time for yourself and time for reflection. Many women will understand the struggles of overcoming frequent or unexpected challenges that are unique to women, and often, these are augmented in the workplace. I’ve learned that making time for myself, especially during arduous times, is helpful to de-stress situations. Sometimes I take 15 minutes to read an inspiring article even if it’s something I’ve read before, or go for a walk or a jog, or simply stepping away from the screen and doing simple stretching techniques (try it, it works!) can help me ease tension. Then afterward, I’m able to get back to the matters at hand with a more positive approach. Too many times during intense situations, I’ve seen decisions be made unnecessarily too quickly and irrationally. I want to convey to women that it’s okay to not have solutions to problems immediately, and that taking time to reflect and think about next steps can lead to formulating successful strategies, especially in the workplace.

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