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GeekWire recognizes Allen School’s Lauren Bricker as STEM Educator of the Year

Portrait of Lauren Bricker

Allen School teaching professor and alumna Lauren Bricker (Ph.D., ’98) received a STEM Educator of the Year Award from GeekWire for her leadership in advancing computer science education. Bricker is one of three local education leaders to be recognized with the award, which GeekWire created this year to honor innovative educators in the Pacific Northwest who are inspiring students to achieve more in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

“If Pacific Northwest computer science education was a solar system, Lauren Bricker could arguably play the role of the sun,” GeekWire’s Lisa Stiffler wrote in an article highlighting the honorees. “Her efforts to reach students from K-12 to college have shone a light into far-reaching and diverse stretches of the educational system.”

Bricker’s orbit extends far beyond the classroom to encompass the design of computer science courses for the Washington State Academic Redshirt (STARS) program at the University of Washington, outreach to K-12 classrooms through the UW in the High School and Allen School ambassadors programs, curriculum development for Code.org, and leadership and advocacy in her role as President of the Puget Sound Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA). According to Bricker’s colleague Dan Grossman, professor and vice director of the Allen School, only a fraction of her role fits into the conventional mold of a UW teaching professor; in fact, he says, Bricker joined the faculty in 2017 in part to be a major conduit between the Allen School and K-12 educators across Washington state.

“Lauren is an unheralded hero of computer science education in the Pacific Northwest, filling a role that improves high-school computing education, improves university computing education, and connects the two in totally unique and crucial ways,” said Grossman. “What’s more, Lauren approaches all of her work through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. To her, access to computing courses is but the starting point, where the real goal is for everyone — particularly those who never saw themselves as computer scientists — to thrive.”

To that end, one of Bricker’s signature contributions has been her leadership of multiple efforts aimed at expanding support at UW for students from low-income, first-generation, and underserved backgrounds to be successful in computer science and other engineering-related disciplines. Bricker developed and teaches the introductory computer science course for the College of Engineering’s STARS program, which supports incoming engineering and computer science students by strengthening academic preparation for core mathematics and science prerequisites as well as building the skills and support systems they need to excel in college-level work. Bricker also works closely with students in the Allen School’s Startup program. Each year, Startup provides ongoing support to incoming freshmen who were admitted directly into the computer science or computer engineering major and who are from underserved communities and/or have had limited programming experience.

As the faculty lead for Startup, Bricker has been instrumental in crafting the curriculum for the program’s intensive, four-week pre-autumn course that immerses students in learning foundational computer science concepts, building their critical thinking and problem solving skills, and preparing them for the transition from high school to college. She also has contributed to workshops designed to reinforce core concepts for students during their freshman year. Bricker, whose own journey to higher education included plans to enroll in medical school before she eventually became “hooked” on computers, is motivated in part by a recognition that many students do not enjoy the same advantages she had growing up.

“I lived in a college town. I went to an academically focused high school. I had access to computers and advanced math classes,” Bricker explained. “I also had access to a once-a-week outreach event to encourage women in the medical fields, and my parents encouraged me in the areas I wanted to study. I realize what a privilege that was and how not everyone gets those privileges. I just want to share the good fortune I had.”

A self-described “geek generator,” Bricker brings a personal touch — not just a pedagogy — that has made a difference for students just starting out in computer science. Said one former Startup student of Bricker’s, “I’d go to office hours sometimes and she’d explain the concept to me in a different way so I could understand it better. I really appreciated having her as my professor, she’s the best I’ve had!”

Another former student who later served as a teaching assistant for Startup noted that Bricker’s willingness to meet students where they are, with lessons and examples that are personally meaningful to them, has been especially important in the context of remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with Lauren as a TA during online learning and seen her adapt in a way that keeps students engaged,” sophomore Karman Singh said. “She takes the time to walk through exercises so that everyone can understand. She lets students control their learning by having them participate in interactive activities, lead group projects, and create demonstration videos.”

Group of smiling students posing on concrete stairwell with trees and the Paul G. Allen Center in the background
Students in the Allen School’s 2019 Startup cohort on the UW Seattle campus

According to Singh’s classmates Kashish Aggarwal and Jessica Louie, Bricker helps students do more than grasp the material — she also instills a level of comfort and confidence that they can carry with them throughout the remainder of their time at the UW. 

“I was constantly reminded of how skilled Professor Bricker was in her field, but also how incredible she was with working with students,” recalled Aggarwal. “Always encouraging and working with her students, she always had a smile on her face, never giving up on anyone. She helped me gain more confidence in my abilities and resilience in my work.”

“She is great at breaking down difficult topics to digestible and easy-to-learn parts,” Louie said of Bricker’s teaching style. “She is also super approachable and down to earth, which helped me overcome a fear of speaking with professors. I admire her knowledge and ability to make students feel comfortable around her.”

Startup co-instructor Leslie Ikeda, an academic adviser in the Allen School, credits Bricker with playing a key role in the growth and success of the program since the latter first became involved in 2018.

“Lauren is a fierce innovator and educator, and she is relentless in her commitment to supporting students who have been historically underrepresented in computing,” Ikeda said. “Lauren fosters inquiry and creativity through her curriculum and thinks intentionally about how our Startup students can bring themselves — their identities, experiences, values and interests — into their technical projects. Her enthusiasm and passion for teaching is felt by each of her students, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work alongside Lauren and witness her incredible work.”

Sonya Cunningham, executive director of the STARS program, agreed, noting that students are inspired by Bricker in part because they can tell she genuinely cares about them as individuals.

“If a student really wants to learn about computer science, Lauren never gives up on them. She will spend as much extra time as needed to help them succeed,” said Cunningham. “I have seen her do this several times with STARS students who were really struggling. As a result of her patience and willingness to go the extra mile, I’ve witnessed amazing turnarounds in our students’ confidence as well as their enthusiasm and love for computer science.

“By teaching students how to learn, how to embrace change, and how to remain flexible and adaptable, Lauren inspires our students to work hard and bring their best,” Cunningham continued. “Under her guidance, STARS students do really well in the computer science gateway courses. We feel lucky to have Lauren as a part of the STARS team!”

In addition to her teaching and K-12 outreach on behalf of the Allen School, Bricker has co-led multiple teacher training workshops for Code.org and contributed to the development of the organization’s Computer Science Discoveries curriculum currently in use by tens of thousands of middle school students around the world. Before joining the Allen School faculty, Bricker spent 20 years in industry in various software engineering, management and consulting roles and 10 years as a teacher at Seattle’s Lakeside School, where she developed and taught honors-level computer science courses to students in grades 9–12 as well as advanced courses in mobile, web and Arduino development and 3D printing and modeling. While at Lakeside, Bricker also spent three years restructuring and teaching a course that introduced students to programming in the 7th grade. 

Bricker herself has learned some valuable lessons over the years when it comes to strategies for engaging more underrepresented students in STEM education and careers.

“We should ‘decenter’ the curriculum by allowing students’ voices to be heard through projects that engage with their own interests. Moreover, make that curriculum relevant by connecting it to real-world problems,” Bricker explained. “We also need to expand representation in the classroom. It’s critically important that we encourage teachers from diverse backgrounds to learn how to teach STEM fields and to feel confident in teaching them.”

Bricker and fellow STEM Educator of the Year honorees Cathi Rodgveller and Kim Williams will be recognized during the 2021 GeekWire Awards celebration on May 20th. Rodgveller founded the organization IGNITE Worldwide to engage more women and girls in STEM education and careers. Williams is a science teacher who serves as the department head and Science Club faculty advisor at Cougar Mountain Middle School in the Bethel School District.

“I am grateful to know Lauren as a student, teaching assistant, and as someone I can connect with at any time,” Singh said. “She puts so much effort into her teaching and making sure all students can understand various concepts. She takes inclusion, equity, individual learning, and growth mindset to heart.

“I can honestly say that she is one of the best teachers I have met.”

Read more about the STEM Educator of the Year Awards and listen to a podcast featuring the honorees discussing the future of learning courtesy of GeekWire.

Way to go, Lauren!

May 14, 2021