How I Became a D.tech Dragon

I was a sophomore in high school when my dad told me about an up-and-coming public charter school called Design Tech High in Burlingame, California, about 30 miles north of my hometown in Silicon Valley.

From the age of five I had attended my small-town public schools. I was comfortable there, but the only approach to learning I’d ever known was pretty dull: read the textbook, do the homework, take the test. No questions asked. For me, it was a monotonous routine with little personal meaning.

I wanted to do work I was passionate about, so I decided to venture into the unknown and unorthodox style of learning at Design Tech: I became a “d.tech dragon.” The concept of design thinking felt foreign to me at first. I was now being asked to think practically, looking at the world through the eyes of an innovator. That meant making use of both creativity and analysis, and following sequential steps: empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing.

I got to try out the new thinking skills I was developing in my first intersession, a two-week period in which students put aside their usual academics and take classes focusing on extracurricular activities, design thinking, and real-world skill building. I took “Data Visualization,” a class hosted by the Oracle Education Foundation. Every morning I would go to sleek, tall glass buildings to learn about big data and what it takes to make a powerful data visualization. On the first few days we watched TED Talks and heard an in-person lecture by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, a data visualizer and author of Storytelling with Data, who taught us about the difference between pretty visualizations and meaningful ones. We also participated in a video chat with the CEO of the Dian Fossey organization. I was surprised to learn that, although their research takes place in the natural world, the scientists often make use of sophisticated technology—for example, to track gorilla types, counts, and habitats. It made me realize that data truly are everywhere.

Then we began our own projects, splitting into groups and brainstorming topics. I suggested that we research Alzheimer’s disease, having seen a family member experience it. My group was intrigued, and we decided to research emotional states of Alzheimer’s patients to help caregivers with their challenging work.

We divided up the tasks of collecting data, visualizing it, and creating a presentation. I worked on the visualization, using a software program called Tableau. I would import files and play around with colors, shapes, and design to create a visualization. The task proved challenging. I would make one visualization and realize that a different type of chart might be easier to read, or that the style I chose was impractical.

After trying many prototypes, we settled on a visualization that wasn’t very intricate or pretty but was simple and easy to understand: an animation and line graph showing changes in emotional states of Alzheimer’s patients over time. Our presentation at the end of the workshop also incorporated storytelling through poems that expressed the feelings of Alzheimer’s patients. One of the poems read, “I am sad and sick and lost. All I know is that I need you.” Looking into the audience of students, instructors, and family members, I felt they were genuinely moved by our presentation.

By the time I finished my first intersession, I had gained both confidence and a passion for technology. Later, my confidence blossomed further when I was chosen to be a TA for the data visualization class and learned how to be an effective leader among my peers. Through my experiences at Design Tech, I have had the chance to harness the power of design thinking not only to help solve problems in the real world but also to grow as an individual.

Meghna Gaddam is a junior at Design Tech High School whose interests include journalism, neuroscience, and advocating for more girls to enter the tech field. She hopes to go into medicine and work on health issues in impoverished communities abroad.

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Glam Grads Q&A: Nika Soon-Shiong on working at the intersection of international studies, creative writing

Nika Soon-Shiong B.A. ’15 M.A. ’16 is a passionate storyteller who led a “photovoice” project on youth unemployment in Nyanga, Cape Town and Gaborone, Botswana as part of her African Studies research. Through her photovoice project, Soon-Shiong sought to help members of the communities she visited be heard by giving them cameras and asking them to document their experiences. In this edition of Glam Grads, The Daily talked with Soon-Shiong about her project and her other work at the intersection of her two passions, international studies and creative writing.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Can you tell me about yourself and your journey to Stanford?

Nika Soon-Shiong (NS): I grew up in LA and was always interested in international development. I did Model United Nations in high school, and I knew that coming to Stanford, I wanted to explore creative writing and how that could intertwine with international studies.

TSD: What about international studies and writing do you find interesting?

NS: I have always been passionate about telling stories and advocating for others who do not have the opportunity to tell their own stories. I have always been trying to marry those two interests, whether that has meant delving into journalism or highlighting views or parts of the world that need to be highlighted. And that can mean amplifying voices on the global stage that need to be amplified … in order to increase situations of justice on a national scale.

TSD: How did you realize you wanted to combine your interests in international studies and writing?

NS: I used to think of my interest in writing and interest in international studies as two interests that lived in silence. But when I read Samantha Power’s “Problems from Hell,” that was a big moment for me where I just put the book down and realized that her interest in journalism and storytelling had very much informed her in her actions as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. And that was a crystallizing moment for me in terms of how I could marry my two interests.

TSD: What have you been doing so far to pursue your passions?

NS: I did a photovoice project the summer of my junior and senior year. Basically, it is a community-based participatory research method where you give members of a community a camera and ask them to document and explore their experience with a particular issue.

I was in Nyanga, a township outside of Cape Town, when I made a photovoice project that explored unemployment amongst township youth. I asked them on one hand, to capture the aspects of the community that inspire them, and on the other hand, [to capture] the aspects of the community that make it hard to find a job.

The photovoice project really grew out of my feeling and my sense that the best way I could serve the beneficiaries of the life skills and job training program in Nyanga was to listen, and to create spaces for them to share their stories in public and private settings. It wasn’t an exhibition that showcased all that is negative in Nyanga, but rather something that tried to do justice to the beauty as well — and create a more well rounded picture of the participants’ experiences.

Then, I continued this project in Gaborone, Botswana last summer at the Baylor Pediatric Aids Initiative.

TSD: What are some prior jobs you’ve had related to your interests?

NS: I was an intern at TeachAIDS, a nonprofit Piya Sorcar runs out of Palo Alto. I got to do some writing for grants, awards application writing, and the company won one of the awards that I wrote the application for, which was really exciting for me. I got to do some blog writing for them which was really fantastic. I got to explore the work they were doing via writing their blog, and reading their blog, over and over again and making notes and edits wherever I saw necessary. And it is such a small company, so I also got to see how hectic it can be sometimes.

TSD: What is an interesting fact about yourself?

NS: I am learning to speak five languages: English, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Xhosa.

TSD: What are your future plans?

NS: In terms of future plans, I want a career where I can use my writing, research and analysis skills to contribute to the international development space. As of now, I’m not sure if this will be in an academic, government or nonprofit setting.

 

Contact Meghna Gaddam at meghna.gaddam ‘at’ gmail.com.

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