IES funds cutting-edge researchers who often bring multiple disciplines together. Dr. Maithilee Kunda (Vanderbilt University) is one such researcher who stands at the juncture of multiple fields, using artificial intelligence (AI) to address questions related to cognition and autism spectrum disorder. Recently, Dr. Kunda received an award from the National Center for Special Education Research to develop an educational game that leverages AI to help students with autism spectrum disorder better infer and understand the beliefs, desires, and emotions of others. As a computer scientist and woman of color performing education research, Dr. Kunda exemplifies the value that diverse backgrounds, experiences, and disciplines bring to the field.
Bennett Lunn, a Truman-Albright Fellow at IES, asked Dr. Kunda about her work and background. Her responses are below.
As a woman of color, how have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?
In college, I was a math major on the theory track, which meant that my math classes were really hard! I had been what one might call a “quick study” in high school, so it was a new experience for me to be floating around the bottom quartile of each class. The classes were mostly men, but it happened that there was a woman of color in our cohort—an international student from Colombia—and she was flat-out brilliant. She would ask the professor a question that no one else even understood, but the professor’s eyes would light up, and the two of them would start having some animated and incomprehensible discussion about whatever “mathy” thing it was. That student’s presence bestowed upon me a valuable gift: the ability to assume, without even thinking twice, that women of color quite naturally belong in math and science, even at the top of the heap! I don’t even remember her name, but I wish I could shake her hand. She was a role model for me and for every other student in those classes just by being who she was and doing what she did.
I have been extremely lucky to have seen diverse scientists and academics frequently throughout my career. My very first computer science teacher in high school was a woman. At a high school science camp, my engineering professor was a man who walked with two forearm crutches. Several of my college professors in math, chemistry, and robotics were women. My favorite teaching assistant in a robotics class was a Black man. In graduate school, I remember professors and senior students who were women, LGBTQ people, and people of color. Unfortunately, I know that the vast majority of students do not have access to such a wealth of diverse role models. It is heartening, though, that even a single role model—just by showing up—has so much power to positively shape the perceptions of everyone who sees them in their rightful place, be it in STEM, academia, or whatever context they inhabit.
What got you interested in a career in education science?
I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy growing up, and in high school, I was wrestling with why I liked these genres so much. I came up with a pet theory about fiction writing. All works of fiction are like extended thought experiments; the author sets up some initial conditions—characters, setting, etc.—and they run the experiment via writing about it. In general fiction, the experiments mostly involve variables at the people scale. In sci-fi and fantasy, on the other hand, authors are trying to run experiments at civilization or planetary scales, and that’s why they have to create whole new worlds to write about. I realized that was why I loved those genres so much: they allowed me to think about planetary-scale experiments!
This “what if” mindset has continued to weave itself throughout my scholarship and career.
How did it ever become possible for humans to imagine things that don’t exist? Why do some people think differently from others, and how can we redesign the workings of our societies to make sure that everyone is supported, enriched, and empowered to contribute to their fullest potential? These kinds of questions fuel my scientific passions and have led me to pursue a variety of research directions on visual thinking, autism, AI, and education.
How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of neurodiversity and inclusion in education?
Early in graduate school, and long before I heard the term neurodiversity, the first big paper I wrote was a re-analysis of several research studies on cognition in autism. This research taught me there can be significant individual variation in how people think. Even if 99 other people with similar demographic characteristics happen to solve a problem one particular way, that does not mean that the hundredth person from the same group is also going to solve the problem that way.
I realized much later that this research fits very well into the idea of neurodiversity, which essentially observes that atypical patterns of thinking should be viewed more as differences than as being inherently wrong or inadequate. Like any individual characteristics you have, the way you think brings with it a particular set of strengths and weaknesses, and different kinds of thinking come with different strengths and weaknesses.
Much of my team’s current research is a continuation of this theme. For example, in one project, we are developing new methods for assessing spatial skills that dig down into the processes people use to solve problems. This view of individual differences is probably one that teachers know intuitively from working one-on-one with students. One of the challenges for today’s education research is to continue to bring this kind of intuitive expertise into our research studies to describe individual differences more systematically across diverse learner populations.
In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity and equity and improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?
For the past 3 years, I have been leading an IES project to create a new educational game called Film Detective to help students with autism spectrum disorder improve their theory of mind (ability to take another’s perspective) and social reasoning skills. This was my first experience doing research on an interactive application of this kind. I was a newcomer to the idea of participatory design, which basically means that instead of just designing for some particular group of users, you bring their voices in as active contributors early in the design process. Our amazing postdoc Dr. Roxanne Rashedi put together a series of early studies using participatory methods, so we had the opportunity to hear directly from middle schoolers on the spectrum, their parents, and their teachers about what they needed and wanted to see in this kind of technology.
In one of these studies, we had students try out a similar education game and then give us feedback. One young man, about 11 or 12 years old, got frustrated in the middle of the session and had a bit of a meltdown. After he calmed down, we asked him about the game and what he would like to see taught in similar games. He told us that he would really like some help in learning how to handle his frustration better so that he could avoid having those kinds of meltdowns. Impressed by his self-awareness and courage in talking to us about his personal challenges, we ended up designing a whole new area in our game called the Relaxatron arcade. This is where students can play mini-games that help them learn about strategies for self-regulation, like deep breathing or meditation. This whole experience reinforced for me the mindset of participatory design: we are all on a team—researchers, students, parents, and teachers—working collaboratively to find new solutions for education.
We are also proud to work with Vanderbilt’s Frist Center for Autism and Innovation to make our research more inclusive and participatory. One of the many excellent programs run by this center is a software internship program for college students or recent graduates on the spectrum. This summer, we are pleased to be welcoming three Frist Center interns who will be helping us on our Film Detective project.
What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered and how did you overcome the challenge?
Throughout my career, I seem to have gravitated towards questions that not many other people are asking, using methods that not many other people are using. For example, I am a computer scientist who studies autism. My research investigates visual thinking, but not vision. I work in AI, but mostly in areas out of the mainstream.
I get a lot of personal and intellectual satisfaction out of my research, but I do face some steep challenges that I believe are common for researchers working in not-so-mainstream areas. For instance, it is sometimes harder to get our papers published in the big AI conferences because our work does not always follow standard patterns for how studies are designed and implemented. And I do experience my share of impostor syndrome (feeling unqualified for your job even when you are performing well) and FOMO (fear of missing out), especially when I come across some trendy paper that already has a thousand citations in 3 months and I think to myself, “Why am I not doing that? Should I be doing that?”
I try to remember to apply the very lessons that my research has produced, and I am fortunate to have friends and colleagues who help lift me out of self-doubt. I actively remind myself about the importance to our species of having diverse forms of thinking and how my own individual view of things is a culmination of my unique lifetime of educational and intellectual experiences. That particular perspective—my perspective—is irreplaceable, and, more than any one paper or grant or citation, it is the true value I bring to the world as a scientist.
How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?
I think research communities in general need to recognize that inclusion and diversity are everybody’s business, regardless of what someone’s specific research topic is. For example, we assume that every grant proposal and paper follow principles of rigorous and ethical research design, no matter the specific methodology. While some researchers in every discipline specialize in thinking about research design from a scholarly perspective, everyone has a baseline responsibility for knowing about it and for doing it.
Similarly, while we will always want and need researchers who specialize in research on inclusion and diversity, these topics should not be considered somehow peripheral to “real science." They are just as much core parts of a discipline as anything else is. As I constantly remind my students, science is a social enterprise! The pool of individual minds that make our discoveries for us is just as important as any piece of equipment or research method.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?
A few years ago, when I was a newly minted assistant professor, I went to a rather specialized AI symposium where I found myself to be one of only two women there—out of over 70 attendees! The other woman was a senior researcher whom I had long admired but never met, and I felt a bit star-struck at the idea of meeting her. During one of the coffee breaks, I saw her determinedly heading my way. I said to myself as she approached, “Be cool, Maithilee, be cool, don’t mention the women thing…” I was gearing myself up to have a properly research-focused discussion, but when she arrived, the very first words out of her mouth were, “So, there’s only the two of us, huh!” We both burst out laughing, and over the next couple of days, we talked about our research as well as about the lack of diversity at the symposium and in the research area more broadly.
The lesson I learned from this wonderful role model was that taking your rightful place in the research community does not mean papering over who you are. Certain researchers are going to be rarities, at least for a while, because of aspects of who we are, but that is nothing to hide. The value we bring as scientists comes from our whole selves and we should not just accept that but embrace and celebrate it.
This blog is part of a series of interviews showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. For the first blog in the series, please see Representation Matters: Exploring the Role of Gender and Race on Educational Outcomes.
Dr. Maithilee Kunda is the director of the Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence and Visual Analogical Systems and founding investigator for the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation at Vanderbilt University. This interview was produced and edited by Bennett Lunn, Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research.