We recently sat down for a (virtual) conversation with Piper’s dynamic cofounder, Shree Bose. Long passionate about science, Shree is currently enrolled in Duke School of Medicine’s demanding MD/PhD Program. However, her role as an outspoken advocate for K-12 STEAM education came about earlier, when she was an undergraduate at Harvard University. Read on to learn more about Shree’s background as a medical researcher, her work to make the Piper Computer Kit engaging for all learners, and how she addressed gender disparities among early users of the Piper Computer Kit.
As a Piper cofounder, where did the idea for the Piper Computer Kit come from?
SB: My background is in medical research, and in high school, I won the Google Global Science Fair, for my research on drug resistance in ovarian cancer. This provided me with an amazing platform to engage with students about STEAM. When younger students would ask me how to start a career in biology or medicine, I would always be able to give them a concrete answer. However, when students approached me about how to get started building the technology that actually enables medical or scientific innovation, I realized there was no definitive answer. The Piper Computer Kit was created to fill this gap – it demystifies technology and teaches foundational STEAM skills that lay the groundwork for innovating with technology.
How did the Piper Computer Kit evolve from its first iteration?
SB: The software in the first iteration of the Piper Computer Kit was only the creative mode, building with code. We were visiting a school in Atlanta where students were using Piper Computer Kits when I had a really dispiriting realization – at some point, all of the girls had stopped building in Piper’s creative mode.
As a female cofounder, I felt a responsibility to discover what it was that was causing girls to lose interest, as I wanted Piper to provide tools that transcended gender, especially given the underrepresentation of women and girls in STEAM fields. So, I started to play with the Piper Computer Kit myself and then it dawned on me – “I’m using code, but what am I building?” That realization led to the creation of StoryMode (Piper’s narrative-based software that shows learners how to bridge electronics with code). StoryMode was not only engaging and fun, it added structure to the Piper experience that resonates well with goal-oriented students.
You mentioned the impact of your experience witnessing gender disparity in STEAM play out in students interacting with the early iteration of the Piper Computer Kit. We know that there’s a massive underrepresentation of women and girls in STEAM, so what is your advice to girls in STEAM?
SB: When I won the Google Science Fair in 2011, all of the winners were girls! I was frequently asked “How is it difficult to be a girl in science?” To be honest, up to that point, I hadn’t really experienced the impact of biases against women and girls in STEAM. But then l attended a big tech event with Piper. I was carrying a Piper Computer Kit around and was repeatedly asked questions like whether I was carrying cookies or some other non-tech item inside the Piper Computer Kit’s wooden case. The assumption was the farthest thing from the reason I was at the conference: as a female cofounder showcasing a piece of education technology.
My advice to girls is twofold. First of all, don’t take no for an answer. Second of all, recognize that when you’re struggling with something, it’s not a commentary on your own ability – it’s often a reflection of the tools (or lack thereof) that have been built for you to learn it. Your difficulty in mastering a STEAM subject might just be an artifact of antiquated K-12 curriculums that were developed for boys, and can perpetuate negative ideas about women and girls in STEAM.
Part of success is overcoming struggle, so being willing to acknowledge and speak to our own weaknesses, especially as female leaders, is an important part of dismantling the concept of perfection that can deter girls from STEAM.
You’re a passionate advocate for K-12 STEAM education. Was there a particular educational experience that impacted your academic/career trajectory?
SB: I had several science teachers that really made an impact on me. My AP Biology teacher introduced me to the world of biology, and unlike some other science subjects, biology made a lot of sense to me. Another science teacher told me that if I really wanted to pursue research, I needed to seek out university experiences. That guidance led me to reach out to professors about research opportunities, ultimately leading to the ovarian cancer research for which I later won the Google Global Science Fair.
You mentioned that not all science subjects came easily for you, including Physics and Chemistry, which is something which many students can identify with. Was there anything in particular that helped you overcome challenges with these subjects?
SB: I mentioned a couple of the educators that made a big impact on me, but I didn’t mention my older brother, who was my most important science teacher. He had an incredible sense of how things should work, and walked me through chemistry concepts with visual modeling.
That’s awesome! We can definitely draw parallels between the sort of visual modeling that your brother used to help break down complex science concepts for you and the hands-on STEAM learning that Piper fosters. Besides the obvious – that both the Piper experience and the health sciences are very hands-on and physical – how would you define how Piper helps students build skills toward healthcare/science/research career pathways?
SB: Amongst other 21st century skills, the Piper Computer Kit teaches students the concept that when you encounter a challenge, you can find a solution with tools that you build, which is the essence of science. The mindset of approaching problems as something that can be solved is what fuels progress in fields from astrophysics to medicine.
You’ve already accomplished an incredible amount, and are currently in the midst of completing a dual MD/PhD degree. What comes next? What are your career aspirations?
SB: I would like to become a clinical oncologist and bring a spirit of innovation to my career by conducting research. Eventually, I want to start my own biotech company to develop solutions to the most complex issues of healthcare.
Given her rapid trajectory as an edtech cofounder, her recognition for research by Google and the medical community, and her progression from Harvard to the prestigious MD/PhD program at Duke School of Medicine, we’re confident Shree will continue to inspire young thinkers, problem-solvers and makers across the STEAM disciplines. Curiosity, innovation, and advocacy is part of Shree’s DNA, and we’re proud and grateful to continue to build on her vision for the Piper Computer Kit. Thanks, Shree!