Computer science doctoral student recognized for diverse interests and impact

As a doctoral student studying computer science, Minji Kong is interested in developing new digital technologies to improve computer science learning in K-12 classrooms.

She is also a creative storyteller, artist, musician and co-founder of The Papaya Project, an initiative based on identifying and critically addressing inequities and bias in computing and computing education research. The organization aims to transform computing education and the broader computing discipline into a more inclusive and equitable field.

In recognition of her well-rounded excellence, Kong is the 2021 winner of the Laird Fellowship, an annual award that helps one first-year engineering graduate student at the University of Delaware pursue interests beyond his or her field of study.

The George W. Laird Merit Fellowship is given to honor the memory of George W. Laird, who earned a bachelor of arts degree at Hamilton College in 1964 and then attended the University of Delaware, where he was awarded a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with highest honors in 1968 and a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering in 1971. On Sept. 6, 1977, at the age of 35, George W. Laird was killed in a tragic accident.

Laird Fellows are selected for balanced excellence, demonstrating intellectual capability and qualities such as character, maturity, sense of humor, creativity, ingenuity, and imagination, coupled with practical skills, perseverance, and the common sense necessary to execute ideas, according to the selection committee.

Journey to UD

Born in South Korea, Kong moved to Singapore when she was eight years old and finished her elementary education there. Her family came to the United States when she was 13, settling in New Jersey and then Delaware, where Kong finished high school.

Growing up in different countries, surrounded by new cultures and languages — Kong speaks Korean, Mandarin, Spanish and English — influenced her passion for telling stories. “I have experimented with creative storytelling, specifically through visual and musical mediums in recent years,” she said. “Storytelling is an activity that has significantly shaped my upbringing as an immigrant, so I enjoy finding time outside of my studies to continue telling and listening to stories.”

Her background also led her to pursue research in computer science education, studying how humans learn and teach computing.

“Travelling makes you appreciate different people, their backgrounds and the stories that they tell,” Kong said. However, K-12 educators need more tools to foster computer science learning environments that are responsive to a diverse population of students. “With the rise of computer technology around the world, it is more important than ever for computer science to be an inclusive field.”

In 2016, Kong enrolled in the honors program at the University of Delaware to pursue a degree in Computer Science.

As an undergraduate student at UD, she found many opportunities to nurture her passions. She practiced photojournalism as a visual editor for The Review, UD’s student newspaper, and she worked as a digital media intern for the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment and Delaware Sea Grant. She also loved providing emerging artists a creative space by curating visual artworks for UD’s art and literary magazine Main Street Journal.

Since 2017, Kong has composed and independently published music under her solo musical project, The Hidden Shelf. “It’s an endeavor I didn’t quite go out of my way in telling my social circle about initially, especially because I wanted to receive outside feedback and constructive criticism from the public if they happen to stumble upon my work,” said Kong. “But the project gradually gained a surprise audience and recognition over the years and brought neat opportunities for me to meet and collaborate with other storytellers around the world, which I am grateful for and still try to do today.”

Kong also excelled as an undergraduate researcher at UD. Under the guidance of her research adviser, Alumni Distinguished Professor Lori Pollock, Kong completed an honors thesis describing a scalable logging and data mining approach that could help teachers to monitor in real-time how students learn to code within a programming environment known as Scratch, a block-based visual programming language developed by the MIT Media Lab to teach coding to children ages 8 to 16. In other words, rather than writing code, children create programs by dragging and dropping blocks that contain discrete pieces of information.

“Programming in Scratch becomes this really naturally creative activity because it encourages whoever is using the Scratch environment to tinker around with images, music, sounds and text,” Kong said. “It emphasizes that creative component in programming, and a lot of K-12 educators support it.”

Excellence in graduate studies

Kong graduated from UD with distinction in 2020. She is continuing her research in the computer science doctoral program, where she continues to study under Pollock while coordinating educational research activities with Chrystalla Mouza, Distinguished Professor of Teacher Education and Director of UD’s School of Education.

Through her research, Kong has learned that there are very few tools to support teachers who use Scratch for in-class activities, limiting the ability to provide personalized learning for students. In response, Kong is developing what are known as “Teaching Augmentation Tools” for Scratch. These include real-time analysis of student programming behaviors, as well as a dashboard, ambient lighting displays and/or wearable devices that will gather and display those learning analytics to more easily identify students who need additional support.

In the spring of 2021, Kong had an opportunity to converse with K-8 teachers in Delaware and Maryland about their experiences using Scratch and their needs and preferences for Scratch Teaching Augmentation (TA) systems. “In the immediate future, I’ll be opening up this conversation to a larger audience, which would include both teachers and students as some of the main stakeholders involved in TA system designs,” she said. “I’ll also simultaneously be looking at how I could begin co-designing the systems with the stakeholders to best center future designs around their needs, approaching the project from the perspectives of mainly the Computing Education and Human-Computer Interaction research fields.” This endeavor will be supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

In addition, as part of Kong’s research assistant position with the Partner4CS team, she will help with the group’s yearly summer professional development for K-12 Delaware teachers interested in teaching or incorporating computer science into their curricula. “For the first time, we will be offering teachers sessions on how they can teach artificial intelligence and its ethics at the K-12 level, which I am currently planning and really thrilled to be leading,” she said.

Kong will also continue her involvement with The Papaya Project. She is working with fellow co-founders to hold critical discussions in a workshop at an upcoming conference about how current practices in the computing education field do or do not center equity and how everyone can work toward centering equity in their research.

All the while, she’s still telling stories through music and art. “Recently, I’ve been drawn to more traditional visual art mediums and jumped back into oil painting for the first time in a while, which has been nerve-racking yet fun,” says Kong.

Awards and recognition

The Laird Fellowship is not the only recent UD award for Kong. In 2021, she was selected for the Robert W. Gore Fellowship, which is awarded to two College of Engineering doctoral students each year. The award is named after the late Dr. Robert W. Gore, a renowned engineer and scientist and UD alumnus.

Winning that fellowship was a bit serendipitous, as Kong’s very first undergraduate computer science course was in Gore Hall. “Dr. Gore and his family’s impact on the University have always surrounded me,” she said. “My computer science career began in a space that the Gore family created for the broader University community, and now, with the support of the College of Engineering, I’m able to carry on Dr. Gore’s incredible legacy. It is a great honor.”

Now, as UD’s newest Laird Fellow, Kong joins a unique community of engaged UD alumni.

“I am honored and excited to make history as the first Laird Fellow from the CS [computer science] department — as well as the first East Asian woman, I believe — to join the Laird Fellowship community,” she said. “I am also looking forward to getting acquainted with Mr. Laird’s family and the other Laird Fellows in the years to come. Even throughout the selection process alone, it was refreshing to resonate with others who valued the importance of human qualities beyond one’s engineering endeavors as much as I did. It’s exhilarating to know that there exists this growing community in engineering, composed of generations of engineers who apply and hone their creativity within and beyond the field, all the while honoring Mr. Laird.”

Article by Jordan Howell and Julie Stewart | Photo by Evan Krape | August 05, 2021