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Q&A: CS teacher Miriam Haart ’22 discusses the impact of computer science

Miriam Haart ’22 is the 19-year-old co-teacher of CS11: How to Make VR, a class on designing virtual reality applications using the Unity game engine, a platform for developing applications.

After graduating high school early, Haart attended the Make School, a computer science-focused college in San Francisco, to refine her programming skills. She was also a data science intern at Yewno, an AI company, and she has made many notable apps such as Norma, Blaze and Recyclable, some of which have now turned into startups. Her focus is on developing apps for underrepresented communities.

In the future, she hopes to create an alternative to CS 106A that is an introduction to CS through app development. She wants to emphasize the accessibility of CS to people, even those who do not believe they are “math or science-y,” viewing it as a powerful tool to create anything from websites to apps.

 

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What was your education like growing up?

Miriam Haart (MH): It was definitely different than most people. I skipped first grade, then when I was in 12th grade I moved to San Francisco from New York and went to Make School for a year. There, I learned iOS development, VR programming, machine learning — really anything that interested me. After that, I worked as an engineer at Yewno, which is an AI company in Redwood City.

 

TSD: Why did you move to San Francisco?

MH: I did [Make School’s] summer academy, so I was still planning to go to 12th grade in New York and finish. The experience was so amazing, being able to spend the entire summer with people who are passionate about building things and learning so much about app development. I knew that I just couldn’t leave. There was just something that clicked in my mind — this is where I need to be right now. So I did everything I possibly could to make that happen.

 

TSD: Did you always know that you liked computer science?

MH: I’ve always known that I liked computers. Since I was nine, I’ve always been playing with them and just making things for fun. Then, when I was 13, I decided that I just wanted to make an app and I didn’t know how to do that. I spent a lot of my time on YouTube, Googling, “how to,” and then hit the spacebar and see what would come up and just learn whatever was there. [Making an app] was just kind of another “how to” for me. I just went to YouTube, typed in “how to make an app,” and started from there and learned programming along the way through app development.

 

TSD: How did you end up coming to Stanford?

MH: This has always been one of my goals, even when I was working at Yewno and at Make School, I definitely wanted to come to Stanford only — I actually only applied here. For me, it was really Stanford or nothing. The reason I wanted to come to Stanford specifically is because of its location, being in Silicon Valley, since I love technology. I want to be right next to Facebook, next to the innovation that’s going on, I want to meet these people, see what they’re working on, see what’s going on in the world.

 

TSD: How did you end up teaching CS11?

MH: I’m super passionate about Magic Leap; it’s this mixed reality headset. The way it works is that it has a lens, kind of like glasses, and there’s no digital screen … And there’s a projector that injects different lights into your retina. So just as the way we perceive things in our reality is the way light bounces off of different objects, it injects lights and then bounces into our retina to make us see things that aren’t there. I met with the Rabbit Hole Club at Stanford and we’ve been talking a lot. Once I heard that there’s a class that they’re teaching in VR I approached them and I said, “I have this skill set, and I have all these ideas to make this class really amazing, let’s work together,” and they were super happy about that.

 

TSD: Is your VR class new?

MH: It was created this year. This is the second quarter of it. It’s a two-unit course, 20 students get in. It’s hard to get into the class because a lot of people apply. It’s a good class, very hands-on, very project-based. I try to encourage people to take it if they’re interested, even if they’re not a programmer. It’s super diverse in skills — we have seven people who identify as programmers and another couple who identify as artists. Storytellers and designers are all working together to build projects and learn about Unity development and breaking their mindset — instead of something that they can’t do, it’s something that they are doing.

 

TSD: What’s it like teaching a class and being a freshman at the same time?

MH: I think it’s all about presentation. People really respect me even though I was 18 when I started teaching the class; [other] people in the class are 22. Since I actually do have a knowledge base and I can help students and I do know how to guide them and teach a class, they respect me.

 

TSD: Can you speak about your idea for Intro to CS through app development?

MH: I guess I can mention that I’m working on it, not that it’s something that’s out there yet. What I think, personally, is that CS is so powerful, and any artist or designer or person can express themselves using technology in ways that are unimaginable. And it’s so valuable for people to have this power and knowledge. So I want to create a way for people to program with CS in a fun way, not just take CS 106A and be so intimidated and overwhelmed that they’re just done with it.

 

TSD: Can you tell me about the apps you’ve developed?

MH: I’ve created a lot of apps, actually. One app’s called Recyclable. You can take a photo of anything and using image recognition, it tells you if that item is recyclable or not. Another one I made is called Dream High and it connects undocumented high school students with undocumented college students in more prestigious schools to be mentors. And it connects them and they can message each other.

I try to make apps for underrepresented communities. An example is, less than six percent of app developers are women. So the beauty industry is super underrepresented on the app store. There’s so few apps that target this industry, even though it’s this huge industry — over a billion dollars. So I made this app called Brows — you take a photo of your face, and, using image recognition, it finds the color of your eyebrows and then presents products that show you what shape and match your eyebrow color.

 

TSD: How do you get ideas for apps?

MH: A lot of it’s like, “Oh, this would be really helpful for me, so I’m gonna make it.” [For example], this app I made called Blaze. When I lived in SF I had to bike to school everyday and I didn’t like going up all the hills. So Blaze finds the least elevated route from point A to point B. So I would avoid all the hills to get to school. So that’s just an example of it benefiting myself and then putting it on the app store to benefit other people as well.

And then something like Dream High, where I am a U.S. citizen, so this is nothing to do with me — it was so cool to be able to do user research and ask students who are undocumented what their experiences are and then build a product for a problem that I don’t have.

 

TSD: What are you working on right now?

MH: Two of my apps turned into startups. One of them is called Norma, which is this app for breast cancer patients — and also people who don’t have breast cancer, but it helps them do self breast exams. It encourages women to do that since breast cancer is very common and it’s very avoidable if women do self breast exams once a month. This app is a chat bot that talks a woman through what to do, and then they can talk back to the chat bot and say, “Oh, I think I have a lump,” and it records this information. So that’s one app. Another one I can’t really talk about because I signed a nondisclosure, but it’s very cool.

 

TSD: Do you think people treat you differently because of your age?

MH: I guess I would say I’m different than most people my age, so that can be interesting. Some people get very intimidated. And that might be scary to some people, but to me, I love who I am and I love my difference in being unique. I’m happy to embrace that part of me.

 

TSD: Do you think all computer scientists need a certain skill set?

MH: I think there are a few different kinds of computer scientists. This is something I try to stress a lot to people who aren’t in computer science to say that, no, you can actually do this. [People think that] computer scientists like data structures and making things faster and problem solving. Other people get intimidated by that and think, I’m not very math-y, I’m not very science-y, so I can’t be a computer scientist or computer science isn’t for me.

I personally think that there is another kind of computer scientist, which I view myself as, somebody who likes making things and building products and is creative-minded. Programming is this tool that we have as a creative platform … I don’t necessarily like programming, which is so crazy to say, but I like the power programming gives me to create.

This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.

 

Contact Jodie Bhattacharya at jodieab ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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