By MARTY LEVINE
M. Beatrice Dias never intended to be a professor — even though the decade she spent as a Carnegie Mellon University staff member, prior to joining the Pitt faculty last July, saw her teaching many seminars.
Dias was a project director and co-director of outreach for CMU’s Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab. Their aim is “to develop meaningful technology that is a response to community needs,” Dias said.
Perhaps the lab’s most well-known creation is the Smell Pittsburgh app, which uses crowd-sourced odor reports to track the presence of particulate pollution in various local neighborhoods and report it to the Allegheny County Health Department. But its most significant effect, she said, was getting residents to respond, in a concrete way, to the simple data point of smelling something.
“If smell made them take action, to move inside or whatever, this is most important. It wasn’t machine-generated data, it was data generated by humans. … If you talk about the air quality index, it is just a number” and less likely to prompt action, she said.
At CMU, “I liked the work in the field, in communities, talking to people,” but “thought I wasn’t cut out to do the job” of being a professor.
“But I found my way back.”
Now she is bringing her focus on community/tech interaction to Pitt, as assistant professor of digital media, learning, and leadership in the School of Education. “Digital media is part of our fabric of life now and most can be used in education,” she said. “What are the costs? What are the tradeoffs?”
She credits several School of Education programs for helping her transition to this new career. She is partnered with a Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher in the School of Education’s Shifting Power in Educational Research and Development program, which aims to support Black and Latinx educators to be “better supported to lead conversations about improving educational practice, in particular for Black and Latinx youth,” as the program website describes it.
Dias and her partner’s project has the central questions: What does student engagement look like in a virtual learning environment? And how do you move beyond measuring such a program by mere participation to assess how well a student learns?
She also appreciates her school’s Practices of Freedom program and its freedom seminars, which are aimed at increasing the number of teachers of color and encouraging their particular pedagogical practice.
Dias is from Sri Lanka and moved to the United States in 2000 to attend college. “I found my identity as an immigrant, formerly, now a naturalized U.S. citizen, and a woman of color,” she said. “All inform how I work, my scholarship. It’s a different way of seeing the world … a way of seeing the world through a critical lens.
“There are dominant ways of learning,” she added. “But there are non-normative texts and different knowledge traditions that are not in the mainstream that are also important and we can learn from them.”
Dias is teaching a course on education and society this semester, and focuses on the intersection of technology and humanity, on education tech and on race, gender and technology in her scholarship. She hopes to be teaching one of her school’s freedom seminars in the future.
“It’s so much bigger” at Pitt than at CMU, she remarked. “I’m still getting used to that. Department meetings are very large. I feel I have changed careers essentially, so that’s a big shift for me. I’m trying to take my previous path and build something, so that shift is interesting and rewarding.”
She may not be playing basketball anymore, as she did in her Sri Lankan high school (at five-feet, one-inch tall), but today some of her practices include “embracing joy” and “freedom-dreaming.”
If you ask people to describe a dystopia, she explained, they can do so easily, enumerating the freedoms lost. But if you ask what “a liberated future might look like,” Dias said, they have a harder time conjuring it. Freedom-dreaming, she said, means imagining the happiness that depends on conditions of life. But joy, she said, is an attitude one can always bring to life.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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