Faces of UMSI: Jeff Stern

Having discovered a passion for doing research in human-computer interaction as an undergrad, PhD student Jeff Stern intends to explore how technology can be used to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and computer science learning, specifically in academic settings.

“I see myself researching and investigating those problems from a design perspective,” says Jeff, referring to his user experience background.

As the youngest person in this year’s PhD cohort, Jeff, 22, came to UMSI after earning his bachelor’s in information science at Elon University, a liberal arts school in Elon, NC. He originally started as a communications major. “I really wanted to make movies and documentaries,” explains Jeff, who is an ardent fan of Pixar movies. “I liked using technology a lot, and I figured out that in the computer science department I could help create technology.”

His school only offered one class in HCI, so Jeff did his own independent research about the UX field, and its application to learning became his focus. One of his research projects was evaluating learning technologies for elementary students. For example, he looked at whether using National Geographic on an iPad versus in its print form more effectively engaged students.

Going into his senior year, Jeff interned at Google headquarters in Palo Alto, CA, as a member of the user experience research team for Google search. “I learned a lot of different things about research and working on teams,” he says. “I learned what I was really interested in studying, and that was one of the things that convinced me to go into a PhD program.”

Jeff applied to several doctoral programs, including Georgia Tech, University of Maryland, and University of Washington. He was sold on Michigan due to Barry Fishman and Stephanie Teasley’s work, both of whom are now his advisors. “Ultimately, Michigan seemed like a great fit and time has shown it definitely is,” says Jeff. “I like the mentor/mentee relationship I’ve formed with [Barry and Stephanie]. They are very open-minded and give concrete advice.”

In his first semester, Jeff began working with another doctoral student, Caitlin Holman, on GradeCraft, a game-inspired learning management system. He has taken the lead on some usability studies and assessing and evaluating the design of the system, and contributed data analysis for a paper for the Learning Analytics and Knowledge Symposium Conference 2015.

Before entering UMSI, Jeff spent a second summer in the Bay Area working for Girls Who Code as a computer science teacher for their Summer Immersion Program. He is returning this summer as a teacher with “new expertise.” As an added bonus for Jeff, this year’s summer program is hosted at Pixar Studios.

“I’m hoping to use the program to explore some of the ideas that I started thinking about during my first year of my PhD studies and implementing them in the classroom,” he says.

Presently, Jeff doesn’t mind if he goes into academia or industry, just so long as he is doing research that interests him. “I love the variety of opportunities that a PhD affords me,” he says. “I could go tenure track at a big or small university, or I can do research in industry. I don’t want to limit myself because I have time to figure it out.”