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Family tradition

Speed read
  • Like mother, like daughter: Science education begins at home and begins early.
  • Oak Ridge National Lab is reaching out to youngsters with Tiny Titan.
  • Work/life balance for parents in the STEM field is achievable. 

When she was a little girl, Suzanne Parete-Koon watched a unicorn run across her computer screen.

That’s not so unusual; many girls are interested in unicorns. But how many girls wrote the computer program that made the unicorn run across the screen? Sadly, the answer is not many.<strong>Environmental factors.</strong> This computational astrophysicist used to write programs of unicorns dancing across her screen as a child. Parental encouragement set her on a STEM course. Courtesy Suzanne Parete-Koon.

Parete-Koon is in the minority; she was lucky to have an early and organic exposure to computer engineering from her mother and father. Dad taught math at a community college and Mom taught science at a local high school. Together, they made the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) world part of the young girl’s everyday experience.  

Dad would bring home his Commodore 64, and together they’d read through a funny little book called Fortran for Humans. When it came time to make the unicorn program, Mom, also an artist, helped with design, while Dad helped her work out the program in Basic.

“I don’t think they were intending to produce a computational scientist or anything, but they made me part of what they were doing. My gender was never a factor; I was just their kid and this is what they were doing.”

Like Mother, like daughter

Fast forward a couple decades and you’ll find Parete-Koon with a PhD in computational astrophysics and a day job as an advanced user support specialist  at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility

At Oak Ridge, she’s also involved with educational outreach, occasionally taking a portable parallel supercomputer called Tiny Titan to schools and science fairs. Designed by Adam Simpson,  Robert French, and Anthony Di Girolamo, the byte-sized supercomputer is a big hit and a cute illustration of parallel programming.

“One of the things I really like about programming is that you fail a billion times before you succeed,” she says. “Programming is powerful for teaching kids the general model for success.”

Teach your children well. Suzanne Parete-Koon carries on the family tradition of early science education with her daughter, Alexandria. Here they build a mini-supercomputer, Tiny Titan. Courtesy Suzanne Parete-Koon; Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  

Parete-Koon recently took Tiny Titan to the USA Science & Engineering Festival, in Washington, D.C. Before she went, though, she had to build another version of the Tiny Titan.  Who better to assist than her daughter Alexandria?

“She was very excited about putting those cases together and excited about hooking things up. She was very focused and seemed very interested, naturally — it wasn’t forced.”

Just like her mother before her, Alex took right to the task.

Parity is positive

As it stands, we have most of our technological life handed to us by a narrow slice of our population. But to make the discoveries needed to compete and advance in the future, we’ll need many different kinds of minds, Parete-Koon argues.

“When we only pipeline a particular kind of individual, we are missing out on some of those discoveries,” she says. “It’s really important to get as many people as possible from as many different experiences interested in these big technological endeavors, or at least let them know that is a choice and that they can choose it.”

And that’s why she’s reaching out to girls and boys to encourage them to try their hand at computer science. Tiny Titan may not run very fast, but it does show youngsters (and oldsters) how a parallel computer works and another way to vent creativity.  

And that’s also why she includes her daughter whenever she can. Like her parents before her, Parete-Koon wants to impress a familiarity with science so that Alex will see computational science as a possible life after childhood is done.

What's more, by including her daughter in her work, Parete-Koon is not only doing her part to right the STEM gender imbalance, she may also have learned the secret to successful parenting.

“Some people feel like they can’t do this and do parenting at the same time, but here’s a strategy for being more involved with your kids: You make parenting part of what you’re doing. It’s not a work/life balance — it’s just life.”

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