By Kristen Bailey April 30, 2019
This is the eighth installment of a yearlong series about women at Georgia Tech. See the full series.
Neha Kumar remembers her first semester at Georgia Tech as some of the best months of her life. “Everything was crazy,” she said. “In the midst of all that craziness, the one thing that felt predictable was the class I was teaching.”
The new assistant professor was then teaching Technology and Poverty, a course she developed and now teaches every fall. “Every time I was in class, I felt like I was home. It was really anchoring for me.” That semester, she received perfect evaluations from her students. To her, it was validation that she was translating her passion for the subject matter to her students.
Kumar’s work looks at mobile technologies and how they are designed for and adopted in underserved communities around the world, specifically in India and diverse rural contexts. Her focus is on formal and informal learning applications that target sustainable development goals. She approaches the work with an emphasis on entertainment-driven adoption, and how it can motivate people to use new technologies. One of her research projects, which she presented at SXSW EDU this year, investigated the potential of smartphone-based virtual reality for learning environments from Cobb County in Atlanta to slum communities in Mumbai, India.
As a first-year student at the University of California, Berkeley, Kumar was initially drawn to education because of an inspirational teaching assistant who taught her introductory computer science. She realized that she wanted to teach; the following summer, she became a TA.
Kumar went on to TA each term, and to earn bachelor’s degrees in computer science and mathematics from Berkeley and a master’s in computer science from Stanford University. She also worked as a software design engineer on Microsoft Office’s PowerPoint team — but she was harboring other goals too.
“I was tired of developing technology for technology’s sake. I needed to figure out how I could channel my skills toward social impact,” she said. She was drawn to the Learning, Design, and Technology master’s program in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, where she could explore the possibilities of designing for underserved populations. Her master’s thesis research led her to explore Ph.D. options in the emerging research area of information and communication technologies and development.
Kumar holds a joint appointment across colleges, in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and the School of Interactive Computing. In shuttling between opposite sides of campus, she has also been able to explore many other affiliations, as a Serve-Learn-Sustain Fellow and as a member of the Design Collaborative. Georgia Tech has given her room to explore, particularly questions about how computing can benefit and serve humanity.
“Very few programs in the U.S. do that,” she said. “You can find individual faculty doing such work, but most of it is still confined within rigid disciplinary boundaries. People rarely look at the spaces in between and across disciplines, and Georgia Tech is increasingly recognizing that those are the exciting spaces to be in right now.”
Kumar is co-director of Georgia Tech’s Minor in Global Development and has frequently served as a judge for Georgia Tech’s Ideas to Serve and Global Social Venture Competition, as well as UC Berkeley’s Big Ideas competitions that aim to foster innovations with social impact. The two courses she teaches every year are Technology and Poverty and the Global Development Capstone. Both classes attract students from diverse disciplines and cultural backgrounds, and most of them are passionate about addressing social change in an academic setting.
“It’s really nice that Georgia Tech has these opportunities for students to feel like there’s value in trying to direct their energy and training toward social impact,” Kumar said. “Every day, every class, I’m inspired to see how much energy they bring.”
A Feminist Framework
Since coming to Tech in 2015, Kumar's work has expanded into various aspects of global health that focus on feminist issues, such as menstrual health education. Two of the winning teams at this year’s Ideas to Serve competition were students of hers who were pursuing projects on gender and women’s health. Another team is looking to create gender-inclusive learning experiences in a makerspace in India, which was founded by a different group of students whom Kumar advises. This summer, she will be taking a team of Georgia Tech students to this makerspace as makers-in-residence, with support from the Denning Global Engagement Seed Fund.
Each fall, Kumar also teaches a seminar course that explores pressing societal issues that may intersect with human-centered computing. This year, she and 17 students compiled their reflections in a short piece titled Bringing Shades of Feminism to Human-Centered Computing, describing how their diverse feminisms intersect with their identity as human-centered computing professionals.
Bridging a Gap
Kumar is drawn to inclusivity in her work. Lately, she has been grappling with how to effectively manage the distance that both naturally exists and is sometimes imposed between students and faculty. In her lab, she works to foster a culture where there is mutual respect, students are recognized as adults, and they know they have support while also having the independence to learn on their own.
“Creating more kinds of healthy interactions between students and faculty, and thinking about ways to shrink the distance, is what’s needed,” she said. “As a student, I thought my advisor’s life was perfect, that he couldn’t possibly have any problems. He had a coveted job, a wonderful family — how could he have anything to worry about? But he was junior faculty, in a brand new research area, at a competitive university. Of course he must have had his share of worries that I knew nothing of. Being on the other side, I now recognize how distorted student perspectives can be. This is also part of lessening the distance — being able to see each other as human beings.”