Women Behind Innovation: Elizabeth Owen

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Categories Women Behind Innovation
Photography by Dennis Trantham

Elizabeth Owen is committed to leveraging machine learning to optimize adaptive and engaging learning systems.

From an early start Elizabeth has always had a passion for education and helping those around her achieve their very best. Before joining Age of Learning as the Director of Learning and Data Science, Elizabeth worked as a researcher and data scientist with GlassLab Games (EA), LRNG by Collective Shift, and Metacog. Her doctoral work is rooted at the Games+Learning+Society Center (GLS). Collaborators include EA, Zynga, and Popcap games, and Dr. Ryan Baker at Columbia University in ongoing Educational Data Mining. Prior to graduate school, Elizabeth was a K-12 educator for a decade, and founding teacher at a Los Angeles charter school (LAAAE.org).

Elizabeth  holds a PhD in Digital Media from the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison focused on game-based learning analytics.

The Edison Awards recently spoke with Owen about her interest in STEM, what she likes about her field, and her greatest achievements thus far. Here’s what she had to say: (edited for brevity and clarity)

When did your interest in STEM begin?

As a young girl, I thought I was bad at math.  My parents had always been very encouraging with all learning, so I believe this started in elementary school.  Whether it was because of implicit attitudes I absorbed about women and mathematics, or because of the primitive math pedagogy alive at the time, I went to a school where it was all drill and kill, with very little emphasis on conceptual understanding.  It was only in pre-algebra, in 7th grade, that I had a teacher that noticed my low math self-esteem (and my declining grades) and worked with me to fill the holes in my knowledge and improve my math self-efficacy.  From that point on, I had the knack of applying my strong logic skills to math class, and I exceled.  Algebra was interesting to me—it was like a series of puzzles to solve.  I think this is where my STEM career began.  I have deep gratitude towards that teacher, because she didn’t let me fall through the cracks, and worked with my parents to start repairing the damage done in elementary school (both psychological and knowledge-wise).

What do you like about your field and what you do?

Highlights of my career path so far have included: Being a founding teacher at a successful charter school in Los Angeles, working at the EA flagship campus on commercial quality educational games at GlassLab, and having the opportunity to help educate hundreds of thousands of children at Age of Learning through our flagship product ABCmouse. At Age of Learning, we are developing adaptive learning games that can support students’ individualized needs at a large scale with engaging content. Our Mastering Math app is an adaptive game that builds a strong understanding of fundamental math concepts, using appealing characters and personalized learning pathways. I love that we build things that are fun, interactive, accessible (via tablet), and help kids learn at the same time.  Computer games are a part of modern culture, and as long as kids are playing them, we have a responsibility to create educational, fun options so that entertainment and learning aren’t mutually exclusive.

Do you think people have any misconceptions about what it’s like to work in a STEM profession?

I think generally it’s easy for kids to have misconceptions about what professionals actually do from day to day—this is applicable in each field (games, research, and data science).  Many people, including adults think that making and studying games means you’re simply playing games all day.  Ha!  That would be great, wouldn’t it?  While I do have fun doing my job, it’s a lot of hard work where teamwork is critical in meeting grinding development deadlines.  With research, there’s the stereotype of a microscope and a lab coat (and sudden, frequent, AH-HA! moments) which couldn’t be further from the truth. Research and data analysis are a lot more like real archeology: there’s a lot of paperwork and painstaking planning in setting up studies, collecting information, and methodical excavation of findings in data, and many, many hours spent writing about them afterwards.  So about 99% relatively methodical, hard work and about 1% AH-HA! With no lab coat or microscope involved, I’m sorry to say.

To date, what project is your greatest success? What is the story behind that innovation?

I love helping make real things that people use, like learning games.  I think the projects that are most impactful have been those in which I can apply my knowledge to support engagement and learning with digital media to reach kids all over the U.S.  This includes work at EA / GlassLab Games to support SimCityEDU, Words with Friends EDU, and Plants vs. Zombies EDU (aka Feed Your Brainz).  Currently, Age of Learning is building commercial quality learning games that reach huge numbers of students at a critical early learning age, and the building of a game-based adaptive learning platform is one of the most exciting projects to date!  Most of all, the incredible people I’ve met along the way are one of the best parts—I’m especially inspired by the amazing women designers, researchers, and coders that EXCEL at their work and are leaders simply by example.

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