Gloria Katuka first saw a laptop when she was 12 years old, a moment she has never forgotten on her journey to becoming a computer scientist. Years later, Katuka has spent her time finding ways to bring computer science to K-12 students, even founding InTECHgrate, a nonprofit that provides after-school programs to bring computer science, information technology, and STEAM education to middle and high school students.
Katuka is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering. She came to the United States from Zaria, Nigeria, as an international boarding student when she was a freshman in high school. Her brothers, Joe and Daniel, were already living here and her host family, the Bergins, became instrumental in her life and a strong support system.
“My host parents both graduated from the University of Florida, so I have been exposed to the UF community from the moment I got to the U.S., beginning with attending games as a high school sophomore,” Katuka said. “It is safe to say that the UF culture was ingrained in me from the moment I stepped off the plane.”
Katuka is a double Gator, earning both her bachelor’s degree in Information Systems and master’s degree in Information Systems and Operations Management from the Warrington College of Business. She is the vice president of the Black Graduate Student Organization.
Katuka took some time to share her story.
How did your journey to the U.S. shape the person you’ve become today?
From the moment I arrived, I was surrounded by my host family, my brothers, and my Montverde, FL, family, who have helped me navigate being away from my home and become acclimated to a new home and a new family. Initially, living in the dorms and having roommates that were from other sides of the world exposed me to the importance of diversity. Additionally, dorm life for four years taught me how to co-exist and build relationships with students from different countries, cultures and backgrounds. The entire experience ultimately allowed me to become a better version of myself.
My host family has been a huge part of my journey as well. They went from being my host family to my true family. They taught me that family goes beyond blood and what matters in a family is love. Growing up in Nigeria with seven older brothers and being the only girl, I had always wanted a sister. My host family made it possible for me to have that younger sister. She motivates me to be a better sister so that she can have a young female role model. Although everything that I have mentioned was a huge blessing, it was continuously difficult to shake off the feeling of losing touch with the rest of my biological family. After my dad passed suddenly, I felt a stronger need to connect with my mother. As I reflect, especially during Women’s History month, I am reminded of all the strong women in my life. They have guided, supported, and inspired me to accomplish my goals and reach my dreams. I feel very lucky and beyond blessed to have my mom, my host mom, and all the “bonus” moms I have gained over the years. A girl can never have too many moms or women in her life.
What first made you interested in becoming a computer scientist?
I was 12 years old when I saw a laptop for the first time. I was mesmerized and curious about how it functioned and how humans could interact with it. At that point, I kept trying to put myself in positions that allowed me to be around computers.
Why did you decide to pursue your Ph.D. in Human-Centered Computing (HCC) at UF CISE?
To be honest, there wasn’t a specific moment. I think it was a seed that grew into a tree for me, and the seed was planted by my advisor, Dr. Kristy Boyer. I met her over two years ago when I was a combined degree student in Information Systems and Operations Management (ISOM) at the Warrington College of Business. I was pitching an idea for an after-school program in Gainesville that would teach high school students how to code. I needed help with the curriculum and was hoping to engage a professor from the CISE department with expertise in this area. I recall her mentioning the HCC program briefly, but at that time I was focused on getting my master’s and getting a job. I guess that was when the seed was planted.
A year later, she offered me a research assistant job in her lab, where I spent my second year of the master’s program. During the year, that seed became fertilized, not only by an amazing project but by a wonderful group of people that I interacted with daily in the lab. The lab reflects Dr. Boyer’s intentional actions toward creating a diverse and inclusive environment for her students. Being in such an intensive and inspiring work environment made the seed blossom and grow even more. This led to my increased interest in not only the human-computer interaction field but in continuing to work with the brilliant and amazing people in our lab.
Can you tell me more about the research you are doing with co-creative dialogue systems and the work you did on the EarSketch and ENGAGE projects?
A dialogue system, also referred to as conversational apps or conversational agents such as Alexa or Siri, is a system that communicates with users through text or speech. A co-creative dialogue system is a dialogue system that interacts with a human within a co-creative domain or on co-creative tasks. The conversation between the human and agent is aimed at fostering creativity as well as collaboration. To do so, we developed a method for analyzing human-to-human collaborative dialogue to predict the student’s satisfaction with their technological partner. The findings from the collaborative dialogue analysis would help us better design co-creative AI (CAI) to be an effective partner for students as they co-create.
So far, we have applied this method of analyzing human-to-human collaborative dialogue to middle school and high school datasets to predict peer satisfaction; and to an undergraduate dataset to predict women’s stress. We reported our findings at two conferences and a journal. Both conference papers have been recently accepted for publication and we are awaiting notifications for the journal article.
EarSketch, a National Science Foundation-funded (NSF) project, has developed a platform for students to create music using code. An extension of the EarSketch project known as EarSketch-CAI, which is the project I worked on, is aimed at building a CAI agent. The co-creative agent is designed to partner with students while they work on co-creative activities on EarSketch.
The ENGAGE project is another NSF-funded project aimed at developing a game-based learning curriculum for middle school students. During the summer, in between graduating from my master’s program and starting the Ph.D. program, I got on the ENGAGE project to analyze some of the dialogue data that was collected from some of the studies. I got to apply the dialogue analysis we developed on The ENGAGE data and reported the findings to a conference. The paper is one of the recently accepted papers.
Tell me more about InTECHgrate and what it does for students in Alachua County Schools?
As we are all aware, there is a gap in STEM education especially focusing on computer science and information technology (CS/IT) within middle and high schools across the world. Although the school systems and educators are constantly working hard to develop a curriculum and find appropriate teachers to fill those roles, they are faced with numerous challenges, especially in a fast-growing and ever-changing technology world. In addition to the logistical changes of formalizing a CS/IT curriculum, there are also issues with building interests in the students as well.
During the pandemic, I officially filed for InTECHgrate to become a 501(c)(3) non-profit. This allows us to continue our after-school programs to bring computer science, information technology, and STEAM education to middle and high school students by integrating coding with music, sports, etc. We collaborate with public schools within Alachua county and other after-school programs such as the Reichert House to provide programs such as our TechTalks on careers in technology, and TechTuesdays coding in Python on EarSketch 12-week program.
With our afterschool programs, we hope to spark the interest of middle and high school students, especially those in historically marginalized areas, in pursuing CS/IT academic and professional careers. We believe that by integrating the technical curriculum with activities that the students are already interested in we can get them equally as excited about CS/IT.
Dr. Boyer said you played a major role in her recent NSF grant and that you will be the main person in charge of the summer camps. Why was working on this project important to you and how do you hope to impact the community with the work you will be doing?
Through InTECHgrate, I have had the opportunity to interact with numerous students across middle and high schools within Alachua County. Getting to know the students and community over the past few years, I am beyond convinced that exposing these students to CS/IT programs will tremendously impact their future academic and professional careers. As technology trends are continuously changing, we need to ensure that these students are aware and exposed to this movement. This summer camp will provide the students, especially those in historically underserved communities, with the opportunity to learn about the most relevant technologies of our time through developing conversational apps, while learning CS/AI concepts and gaining relevant skills. I strongly believe that this project will set a trend for CS/IT programming where students can learn within unconventional and less structured settings. This project is especially important to me because I can continue interacting with the students and continue providing them with better opportunities that will greatly impact their futures.
What is some advice you have for students considering a future in computer science?
I think the most challenging part of pursuing a career in computer science is that it can seem very intimidating, especially for women. With the IT industry still heavily male-dominated, my advice to women is to take it upon ourselves to make the changes we want to see. We need to stop waiting for the world to change for us. Take that step and be the change. If you need help, seek out people currently in the field and talk to them. Don’t decide to give up on pursuing a career without talking to three to five people in the various areas in CS. The area is so broad that I strongly believe that every interested person can find a place to grow and succeed.
What’s an interesting fact about you that most people don’t know?
Growing up my mom was a teacher in a primary school (equivalent to a middle school). Watching her go through all the struggles of being an educator, especially because she was so passionate about teaching, but the system was so bad in my country, I decided that I was not going to pursue a teaching career. It is ironic now because I am currently pursuing a career in computer science education and am completely engulfed in education now. I also really like reading and watching Sci-Fi books and shows.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
One of the most important lessons that my life experiences have taught me is to always be ready because opportunities can come from various areas of our lives and at the least expected times. And when those opportunities come, take on the ones that challenge you the most because those are the ones that will have the most impact on your growth and development. For me, the opportunity to move from the Warrington College of Business to engineering and do research came with a lot of challenges and a steep learning curve, but I have learned so much from these past two years than I could have ever imagined.
Marketing & Communications Specialist
Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering