When Lien Diaz was a student, she dreamed of being an engineer or going to law school. Not once did she think she would end up in education.
Now, with more than 20 years of education experience, Diaz – Director for Educational Innovation and Leadership for the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech – is glad that things worked out the way they have.
Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Diaz and her mother immigrated to the United States to be with Diaz’s father who was stationed in El Paso, Texas serving in the United States Army. Her father’s family lived in Juarez, Mexico, where Diaz and her mom lived for a short time before joining her father in El Paso where she spent the remainder of her childhood.
Diaz earned a scholarship to attend The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) where she studied engineering. Even with her scholarship, means were tight, and she worked three jobs to support herself. With all of her jobs, there was little time to study and Diaz lost her scholarship. However, she was determined to graduate with a college degree.
It was during this time that a friend mentioned that substitute teaching might be a way for Diaz to work just one job to support herself in school. Apprehensive and with no education instruction training, Diaz still decided to give it a try. Once she was in the classroom, it did not take long for her to fall in love with the way her students’ faces lit up when they grasped a concept.
It was at this point that Diaz decided to pursue a career in education.
“Because of my experience as a substitute teacher, I ended up changing my major from engineering to mathematics and science education. Teaching was something that I found came naturally to me and that I enjoyed. I told myself that I would go back and finish my engineering degree later once I was more established, but I’ve been so happy in education that I haven’t done that quite yet,” said Diaz.
Diaz graduated from UTEP with a degree in education specializing in mathematics and science before earning a master’s in math education from Texas State University. She began teaching full-time at an El Paso middle school where she taught math and science. Diaz later taught high school and coached girl sports before being recruited to become a math mentor for the Urban Systemic Program, which was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Becoming a mentor took Diaz out of the classroom to focus more on creating teacher development programs, a move she recognizes as a major moment in her career. For the next six years, Diaz established teacher development programs for rural school districts as a staff developer for the Education Service Center, a regional service center of the Texas Education Agency (TEA).
Before coming to her current position with Constellations, Diaz spent 11 years at the College Board. She spent eight of those years overseeing the development of the Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science (CS) Principles course, which launched in the 2016-2017 academic year. In that first year more than 44,000 students took the new exam, making AP CS Principles the most successfully launched course in the College Board’s history. To date, no other AP course has had as many students enroll and participate in the exam in its first year.
Diaz also oversaw the development updates of AP Statistics and AP Calculus courses.
“Computer science just fell into my lap. When the College Board asked me to oversee the course, I knew very little about the subject. Having to make sure that everything in the course matched up to the highest standard was very challenging, but also a great crash course in learning CS concepts. However, I still don’t consider myself a programmer,” said Diaz.
Ironically, Diaz actually took a computer science course in college and hated it. She found the course structure unrelatable and, as one of two women in the course, the environment was uncomfortable. The other woman dropped out, but Diaz stuck with it.
“I liked the concepts we were learning and thought it was interesting to plug algorithms into a computer and make it do things, but everything else about the course was so unrelatable and I actually could not wait for it to be over,” Diaz said of her initial encounter with computer science.
She keeps this experience in mind, especially as she is still one of the few women in leadership positions in the computer science education space.
“Being a woman in CS is hard. It’s hard to be a strong female and be seen as a leader. You have to carve out your own path. People preach inclusivity, but there are a lot of people who still don’t believe what they are preaching. I’ve learned that when you find people who support you, hang on to them, and eventually your circle gets bigger.”
Diaz cites Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Cesar Chavez, and Maya Angelou as three of her biggest inspirations. Chavez has especially influenced her life philosophy of always moving forward, even if it is just a small step.
As a Constellations director, Diaz works to ensure that the center is at the forefront of educational technology and pedagogy. As an example, she provides guidance to the center’s research fellows in crafting an educational computer science platform that is accessible to all.
“The advanced computing courses exist now, but how do we get access for every child? If you look at schools that offer advanced computing, they are primarily schools that have the structure and resources in place to do that. Constellations is taking the access issue to the next level by getting at the heart of the inequity in computing education and dismantling race and gender barriers.
"We have a whole subset of students (women, Black, Hispanic/Latinx, disabled, etc.) who are NOT being considered in tech and we are all missing out on their talent and perspectives that can advance our economy and society beyond the tech workforce. How can we work to change that and how do we help them succeed in this space?” said Diaz.