Georgia Institute of Technology student Kantwon Rogers was near the end of his first semester as an undergraduate student when he had a dream.
In it, he was the chief executive officer of his own education technology company, which was odd to him at the time because he had never considered that kind of a goal before. Upon waking up, though, he had a deep sense of excitement.
“I just felt, for the first time, like it was something I had to do, something I had to pursue,” Rogers said. “And it’s great, because I knew that at Georgia Tech, that’s something I can do.”
He was pursuing his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, a field in which he would later also earn his first master’s degree. Now pursuing his second master’s, this time in Human-Computer Interaction with advisor Mark Guzdial in the School of Interactive Computing, he mixes his time as a student with time as a lecturer in his CS 1371 course, Computing for Engineers.
It began with the dream, which became a plan, and it’s a plan he is still pursuing today.
Rogers has always been a planner. It’s a trait he gets from his mom, Joan Dennis, who passed away early last semester. Rogers described her as someone who avoided spontaneity. While he thinks spontaneity is often a positive, he said his mom was someone who would always think ahead, set a destination, and take the steps to reach it.
“It was always thought out,” Rogers said. “So when it comes to thinking ahead, a lot of my decisions are always based off of the future.”
Like the time he decided he wanted to be the valedictorian of his high school class to help earn a scholarship and repay sacrifices that his mom had made for him and his sister growing up.
His mom had seen hardships growing up in Brooklyn, New York, where many in her family suffered from addiction, according to Rogers. The planner she was, she joined the Army to escape and worked her whole life as a single parent to provide better opportunities than she ever had.
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“There was always the expectation that we’d go off and improve our lives to get something she couldn’t,” Rogers said. “Even though she didn’t know the process of doing it, there was always that expectation.”
And so Rogers planned ahead.
The one thing he knew about college was that it wasn’t cheap, wherever he went, so he wanted to do his best to make it easier on his family. Although he didn’t reach his goal of becoming valedictorian, he graduated as salutatorian from Columbia High (Huntsville, Ala.) and did receive two academic scholarships to Georgia Tech. He was the recipient of the Provost Scholarship and the Howard and Donna Thrailkill Scholarship.
In pursuit of his dream, Rogers set out to make another plan.
After earning two degrees in computer engineering, he came to the conclusion that he is “more interested in people than electrons.” He was interested in education technology, specifically making devices to help people learn and help the education system cater to people’s personalized learning needs.
“At its core, that’s human-computer interaction,” he said.
So he researched how to become a teaching assistant as an undergraduate, and now serves as a lecturer during his time as a master’s student. In the class he teaches, which he did for the first time in the Fall 2016 semester, he does his best to make the material fun to learn.
“When I’m thinking about how to present the information, it’s always, ‘How do I make this fun?’” he said. “The knowledge is in there. I want them to learn. But more importantly, I want them to have fun.”
Rogers laments the fact that very often, as information becomes more difficult to understand, teaching styles become less interactive.
“When you’re younger, it’s so engaging,” he said. “But as you get older, it’s treated like it’s your job as a student to become invested in it. For me, I feel like that’s backwards. Of course, as adults, you should have that responsibility. But that doesn’t mean that learning can’t be fun.”
He involves students’ social media in classes, he creates contests, even dying his hair orange once to reward the students’ success.
“We’re born as natural learners,” Rogers said. “We naturally seek out information. But what happens to make people not want to do that anymore? I want to change that. You should want to be engaged and search out that information.”
That is at the heart of his desire to create educational technology, and he wants that technology to be accessible for all populations.
He highlighted the interesting juxtaposition of the Georgia Tech campus, which lies between two populations that are at intense odds with each other.
“On one side there’s wealth, and then on the other, just five minutes off campus, there’s a world like the one my mom grew up in,” he said. “The vast majority will never get out of that and have no clue what goes on here at Georgia Tech.”
He wants to do his part to change that.
“I see that as a great opportunity for outreach, to be the catalyst for them that my mom was for me,” Rogers said. “To show them that there are these other things out there that you can be a part of. Being a black male, I can identify with them, and they can see themselves in me.
“I didn’t know anything growing up about these subjects. I was like, ‘Do black people do engineering? I don’t know.’ I hope I can use this new influence that I’m starting to have to show other people that, yes, you can do it as well. If you want something, you can do it. Especially here.”