Spotlight on STEM Teacher Emma Cunningham
“What do I love about teaching? The challenge of, ‘How can I create a trail of breadcrumbs to help a student going from unknowing to knowing?’ Figuring out what I can do from the sidelines to help a student reach that ‘aha!’ moment independently — I love that.” -Emma Cunningham, HOLA teacher of Scientific Arts
Born and raised between Los Angeles, Japan and San Diego, Emma Cunningham has traveled a path filled with tech, creativity, and a passion for social justice that has led her most recently to teaching at HOLA. Her classes are on web art, electronics, engineering, scratch programming (app and game design) and “drawing machines” — or, the study of robots and their ability to create art.
At Brown University, Emma studied linguistics, which she explains as the study of “how we make meaning out of everyday expression.” It was the language of physics and mathematics that inspired her to pursue the study of systems and logic. Programming, for Emma, was a place where logic, creative expression, and human interaction could be meet. “I was drawn to programming and tech because I love to make things and work with people, and academia is more of solitary, intangible pursuit.”
There was also the question of how numbers underlie creativity that kept Emma intrigued.
“How can you take this logic and apply it to artistic expression? People like to think of art and technology as separate, but they are more similar than many people realize.”
After grad school, Emma took a full-time job at an ad agency for google. Emma found the job both illuminating and disheartening.
“Although I have a passion for building software, it didn’t always feel meaningful, the work we were doing. To make money in this industry you have design, you know, an uber app for cats. And of course it’s cool to see what humans can accomplish, but I couldn’t help but wonder why we weren’t applying what we knew to address major social crises like homelessness and discrimination.”
Emma’s explanation for this misguided use of brainpower begins with the huge lack of diversity in the tech industry. “Most of these guys are of the same class background, and haven’t had to overcome much adversity or oppression to get to where they are. So they are less likely to be committed to addressing social ills.”
When asked about the gender gap in the world of tech, she admits to being lucky. Emma’s no stranger to the horror stories from women in her field but hasn’t experienced much gender discrimination herself. The problem, she says, is lack of opportunity, and less-than supportive work environments.
“It’s obvious why there are not more women in STEM. They are not given the opportunity, and when they do make it, they often feel undermined and unsupported in the workplace — retention is a huge problem for women in the tech industry. Representation is also a problem. Part of the reason why I didn’t pursue STEM earlier in my education is that I didn’t know anyone like me in those fields.”
Emma believes change must come from within the tech companies. “We need to see them being compassionate, open-minded, and willing to deeply reflect on their own space,” Emma elaborates on how the industry must address women and minority struggles.
Taking the power into her own hands, she works to create that kind of inclusive and reflective space for her students on a daily basis.
“I used to think that I didn’t want to have to be an inspiration for girls. That seemed too egotistical somehow. But I have a friend who told me, ‘Just by your very existence you are an inspiration. Just by doing what you’re doing, you are making a difference for these girls who might not realize that tech can be feminine, and women can be smart in this way.'”
After a pause and a wry smile, she adds, “Until the world changes, I’m okay with that.”