Getting young children into STEM — with Maggie Johnson, VP of Education at Google
A discussion with Maggie Johnson, about her work at Google and increasing accessibility to STEM education.
Maggie Johnson, the Vice President of Education and University Programs for Google, manages all technical education, content development, and information management programs for Google engineers and operations staff, as well as Google’s K16 educational programs in STEM and Computer science (CS). Maggie has worked to provide engaging, high-quality CS content to middle school students through CS First; modern digital skills and computational thinking to all students through Applied Digital Skills; and, she works closely with key partners in the community to make CS available to all K12 students.
Johnson says that she always loved mathematics and was curious about the connection between numbers and music. “This is probably what motivated me to focus mostly on early music , particularly Bach, which tends to have a more direct connection to math than later musical genres.” Johnson has a Bachelor’s and Masters in Early Music Performance and was a professional musician in New York City before she moved to Computer Science, obtaining a Masters and PhD from New York University and City University of New York Graduate Center.
Prior to Google, Maggie was teaching faculty and Director of Educational Affairs in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University where she was responsible for the Undergraduate and Masters programs in Computer Science. Now Johnson oversees University Relations, building strategic research partnerships with faculty and labs globally to expand and enhance Google’s research and development efforts. To “develop innovative systems, content and processes to enable high-quality education and research at scale,” is the mission statement that guides Johnson’s work at Google.
Johnson believes that Google, as an organization, does try to provide access to technology and tech-related opportunities through their programs with opportunities that are specifically for everyone. “Internally, we also work hard to create an environment that is respectful and inclusive for everyone who works at Google,” says Johnson.
Additionally, Google is increasing the inclusivity and accessibility for STEM programs through educational programs. “One example is CS First, which we created five years ago after substantial testing with students in schools just outside Charleston, South Carolina. We wanted to create a program that would engage middle school students in that area, which is rural and largely African-American. We came up with a program that meets students where they are, i.e., we get students interested in CS by incorporating it into topics that interest them. A CS First student picks a theme when they join a club (Fashion Design, Music, Sports, Art, etc.), and then they explore the topic that interests them and the CS is folded in, in a natural way. This has worked very well not only with students in Charleston, but students all over the world.” With this increase in the accessibility that Google has provided, in various ways Johnson and her team have been able to decentralize the access to Computer Science from an area like, Silicon Valley. “Silicon Valley has a high concentration of people with strong CS skills. This allows us to create high quality, state of the art educational materials. But we do not use Silicon Valley students to test our programs — we find students that don’t typically have access or opportunity and make sure they work for them.”
Johnson’s work is particularly targeted at students at a middle school level in collaboration with with Google’s partners also working in that space. For example, code.org (which is funded by most of the big tech companies) is the non-profit best positioned to get a CS curriculum into high schools in the United States. “That part of the plan is covered, so our niche is reaching students earlier (in middle school), so that when they get to high school, they can make an informed decision about whether to pursue CS there.”
Johnson believes that all students should have the opportunity to try coding, and to learn computational thinking, which includes understanding algorithms, making decisions with data, how to do effective online research, and how to use technology for good. “These are skills relevant to all students no matter what domain they pursue, and no matter where they are in the world.” She maintains that it is important to provide opportunities for all students to learn these skills, and then once they have them, they can use technology to help make the world a better place, whether they become a doctor, business person, engineer, etc. “Sophisticated technology is already being used in every domain, so it’s essential for students to learn these skills.” Simultaneously, Johnson suggests that aspiring innovators think carefully about the impact, both positive and negative, of any technology they are creating or using. “It’s important to analyze the benefits and risks of the technology, and make sure the benefits outweigh the risks.”
As an individual that has been able to pursue a variety of academic fields, Johnson remains fascinated with the opportunities that technology hold for our future, particularly the speed of change in technology, tools, languages and, the impact of the internet. “It’s been a whirlwind over the last several years. From an education perspective, one of the most important things we teach in undergraduate CS programs is how to learn new technology, tools, languages quickly and efficiently because in another 2 years, everything will change again!”
Maggie Johnson, specifically, has been able to advocate and work towards more equitable STEM education for children through the corporate structure of Google. In doing so, Maggie has been able to, inspire young girls with her pioneering work both as a role model and her role in Google.