Inspiring today’s children, for tomorrow: Karon Weber, Director of Hacking STEM at Microsoft

Hacking STEM – an online resource, devoted to helping teachers create fun and engaging experiments to modernise STEM curriculum – has inspired thousands of teachers and students around the world since its launch last year.

The programme’s online materials provide teachers with a way to make STEM subjects more relatable to real-world applications, which, research has shown, is a key factor in increasing engagement with these subjects.

The seed for the Hacking STEM concept was planted in one of Microsoft’s One Week Hackathons – an annual global event that encourages Microsoft employees to step away from their day jobs and drum up new ideas, tackle problems, create change and make a difference.

Karon Weber, Director of Hacking STEM at Microsoft, was involved in the programme’s conception and evolution, and her passion for her work is infectious.

Prior to her role at Microsoft, Karon worked at various technology companies such as Xerox, Yahoo and Pixar. Her role as Lead Studio Tools Designer and Manager at Pixar saw Karon and her team create tools developed for the production of Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo.

We were fortunate enough to spend some time with Karon and ask her about Hacking STEM, her career, what inspires her, and how today’s younger generation can prepare for the world of tomorrow.

Please visit the official Hacking STEM website for more information.

What do you do at Microsoft (and what journey lead you there?)
I’m currently the Director of Hacking STEM – the education workshop at Microsoft.  We’re responsible for looking at the future of Kindergarten to 12th-grade education on the hardware software and services side.

I’ve been at Microsoft for 10 years, and came in through the mobile phone division – I actually worked on the beginning of Windows Phone 7, and eventually ended up running half of design for the Xbox One. About two and a half years ago I came over to education.

That’s quite an interesting career progression – how did you end up in education?
It’s actually a great story! As you may know, Microsoft has something called One Week every year – a hackathon for its employees, and I was on the Xbox One team and we were hacking a project. It was about 2:30 in the morning during the hackathon, and quite a few people were interested in our project, in which we were thinking of physical notes for use with OneNote. That led us to a meeting with a few other people across the company, which lead me to where I am now!

What’s really interesting is that a year later at the hackathon, we figured out how to hack Excel. That’s what’s really exciting about it all – Microsoft allowed us to have a week to work on something we were passionate about, and we saw a real need for real-time streaming data.

What do the Excel developers think of what you’re doing with their baby?
They’ve been amazing partners. At first when they first looked at how we put a UI on the front of the worksheet – it didn’t actually look like Excel much at all – the first comment was ‘that’s not excel’ and I said ‘oh yes it is’. I felt honoured that I was able to bring something new to a technology to a programme that is so beloved but used in such a different world. It’s the backbone of the financial industry and now, being able to bring that into the data science world and schools, opens up lots of exciting possibilities.

With regards to the Hacking STEM lesson plans themselves – who creates them?
The first thing that’s really important to us, is that every lesson plan is written for teachers, by teachers. What we have at Microsoft is that secret sauce – a team that knows how to take brilliant curriculum ideas and add the real-time component, and the making component. Everything we do is based off existing curriculum today – we’re not inventing curriculum. I like to say that we’re not telling teachers what to teach, but we’re giving them new tools to help them teach.

As for ways that the lesson plans come to life – each one is a little different. In some cases, for example, we had a partnership with Mattel and Hot Wheels, where they came to us and said that they had a unit called a speedometer unit, and asked if we would be interested in hacking their track.

With the case of Lego Education, they came to us and said ‘here are our machines and mechanisms  – what can you do with those?’ That was interesting, because we wanted to figure out how to build something with cardboard or Lego, so it didn’t matter if you had the kit or not. That was a huge, gracious move on Lego’s part, to allow us to be able to do that.

We started off with salad spinners which we built cable coils on, when we were hacking Excel – and people were like ‘is that really Microsoft?!’

The word ‘hack’ is thrown around loosely these days, but what you’re describing seems to capture its spirit perfectly.
The word hack tends to have a negative connotation. People often say ‘oh, you’re hacking something, you must be doing something illegal.’ I like to think of it as green engineering – we’re re-using, recycling and repurposing existing technology to do something different. You would have never thought that a straw could become an exoskeletal tail, right? That’s a very different way of thinking. It really is a mindset rather than it being a destructive act. It’s about saying ‘look, I’m going to make this work regardless of what’s happening.’

The other interesting thing on the lesson plan front is that, if you go by grade, and you look at the STEM curriculum – every single subject can be a lifetime of lesson plans. So we’re very thoughtful that our projects are exciting, and making sure that they’re gender neutral so that everyone can come away with something relatable – and most importantly, that it’s solving a real-world problem – something that you’re doing to make the world a better place.

Am I making water better? Am I figuring out green engineering or transportation? Am I figuring out how to drive faster while improving energy efficiency? The whole range of projects we do is truly a collaborative effort and I’m very lucky to work with an amazing ensemble of talents to bring this all together.

From what we can see, it looks super fun, though it must be stressful at times!
The half-hour of on-stage setup to demo some of our lesson plans can be stressful for sure!

How many suitcases do you all travel with when showing off lesson plans? What’s it like travelling through customs?
We have things that look quite nefarious, but we travel with documentation to make sure that it’s clear that we’re Microsoft, and that everything is very much in an educative capacity! We’ve learned that countries often don’t have cars big enough to support us, so we’ve had to do things like taking three or four taxis from an airport to get us to our destinations.

People must think you’re a band!
I don’t mind being rock and roll doing science!

Have you got a favourite Hacking STEM project?
I’m really partial to the robotic hand, because it was an idea that I happened to have. I came in one day after having been at a science museum where I saw some really beautiful anatomy, and I made a cardboard model in my kitchen, brought it into the team, and asked them how we can put sensors on it and what we could measure.

Another one that makes me really happy, is the earthquake demonstration lesson plan. What’s special about that is that we had an opportunity to go to Mexico City recently – a place that has suffered from particularly bad earthquakes in recent years. I got a chance to teach them this project and how to bring it into the classroom curriculum.

While talking to them a teacher raised their hand and told us how they no longer had a school anymore, due to the earthquake. The fact that, for them, it meant that they now had a way to explain to their students the phenomenon that just happened and bring that reality into a situation which was so devastating – that made me super honoured that we had something that could help explain what happened, to children.

What role models did you have as a child? Did you always know you wanted to go into tech?
I got lost and diverted when I hit my teens. Athletes were my heroes, and I was an athlete – so that ability to think about training and practice and diligence and durability – those were the core pieces for me – but I didn’t know about any women in the sciences at all.

I’m old enough to remember when technology was basically television and radio – we didn’t really have computers growing up. I went through a transition where I had a physical typewriter and moved to a PC, for example. I could have never guessed that what I do now was something that I would end up doing. In fact, it’s pretty interesting that most of the jobs that I have had didn’t exist before I had them (or at least not for long!) For example, I worked in animation, animating 3D films – that hasn’t been around for very long.

What inspires you?
I like being driven by curiosity. If you can find the purpose to use technology in service of what you’re trying to do, then I think that’s really important.

I’ve spent the last year designing user interfaces and human interaction, and I’ve found that people are really good at knowing what they want. As a technologist I believe that watching people, studying what they do and listening to what their needs are, will actually dictate where the technology will go, because it has to be in service of something – otherwise it’s just a fad.

What advice would you give to girls or young women that might have an interest or passion for STEM?
One is to stay curious and always ask questions. Two – put your fear behind you and let it propel you rather than let it block you. We often are unsure when we go into something, and I think we should all have a healthy dose of fear. We should always have challenges, and to be able to cross that threshold is an accomplishment in itself.

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