STEMscopes scientist gets the big picture

Carlos Monroy connects with world-class researchers at high-profile Heidelberg forum 

Tourists often have their pictures snapped in front of monuments. Carlos Monroy wanted pictures with monumental figures.

The Rice University data scientist had a rare and welcome opportunity to fill his scrapbook last month when he attended the second annual Heidelberg Laureate Forum, where young researchers from around the world get to exchange ideas with Abel Prize, Fields Medal and Turing Award laureates.

Carlos Monroy with Vinton Cerf

“The first night, I was at a table with Vinton Cerf, one of the two people considered the fathers of the Internet, and we had a really good conversation. I have pictures with him,” Monroy said. “I had a good conversation with Manuel Blum, a Turing Award recipient, about complexity in computation and his passion for teaching, and Peter Naur, another one, on his theories on computing and human thinking.” Snap and snap.

Similarly inspiring, he said, was his conversation with Sir Michael Atiyah, a mathematician and Fields and Abel laureate, about his presentation on beauty in mathematics.

They were among many luminaries who made his acquaintance, but Monroy brought more than memories back from Germany. His interactions with world-class scientists gave him both inspiration and hard data to pursue improvements in the way Rice’s groundbreaking STEMscopes education initiative delivers lessons to students all over the nation.

Not just anyone can go to Heidelberg. Monroy was one of 200 young computer scientists and mathematicians from around the world invited to the event in Germany Sept. 21-26. There, he said, senior world-renowned scientists get the opportunity to “pass the torch” to the next generation.

Monroy will bring what he learned back to his job at the university’s Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship in a field he calls “learninformatics.” STEMscopes is Rice’s award-winning online science curriculum initiative for pre-K through 12th-grade students and part of Accelerate Learning, a corporate entity created by the university last year.

Monroy with Michael Atiyah

Learning through STEMscopes goes both ways, as its masters strive to make it better through constant feedback from teachers, either in person through focus groups or in the steady stream of data provided by the system itself. Monroy works both avenues to improve STEMscopes.

The young researcher, who joined Rice fresh from earning a doctorate in computer science at Texas A&M, creates models that help users understand how learning takes place. “I analyze large data sets and create visualizations, ways to transform these metrics into tools that teachers and other stakeholders can use to make decisions,” he said.

“When I started, teachers were able to see the results of assessments, but there was no visualization of how they were using the curriculum,” he said. One solution Monroy is helping to develop is a “data dashboard,” funded by a National Science Foundation grant, to give teachers a way to instantly monitor students’ progress and help them on the spot. “I think it’s going to take years to really get it right, but it’s a step forward,” he said.

Monroy applied to go to the conference on the recommendation of a friend who had attended the previous year’s inaugural event. “I’ve always been attracted to learning from people at that level what they went through to get where they are,” he said. “Previously, I had done this by reading biographies. This time, it was over dinner or coffee with the protagonists.”









About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.