Aditi Kothiyal, Assistant Teaching Professor, Creative Learning, at IIT Gandhinagar, discusses her passion for understanding how people learn through making things and the role of social robots in education. In this interview, Aditi also shares her experiences and offers advice to young women aspiring to pursue careers in STEM, encouraging them to adapt and grow through diverse interests and roles.
1. I had the opportunity to hear you speak about social robots helping children learn during curiosity conference recently at IIT Gandhinagar. I am curious, could you elaborate more on what you do?
I study how people learn. Specifically, I am interested in what and how people learn when they make things. Whether it is making Lego or doing Origami or cooking, people learn when they make things. I am interested in understanding how that happens; what are the productive behaviours when people make, that allow them to learn. The goal is to then design learning environments that allow these productive behaviours to emerge, and help people learn. Social robots are one part of these learning environments — they can be a tutor or a facilitator providing the right guidance at the right time.
To give you an example, I love to bake. When I taught myself to bake, I would not only follow recipes detailing the steps but also understand the reasons behind each step and the importance of the sequence.
Occasionally, things would go smoothly, resulting in a delicious and well-presented cake. But, more often than not, despite careful planning, the cake would collapse or burn. It was in these moments of “failure” that I truly learned the art of baking. I would meticulously document what I believed went wrong, and on the next attempt, I would make changes and try again. This process allowed me to grasp the science behind baking, such as the delicate balance between protein, fat, and sugar. And ultimately, the world was a whole lot sweeter!
2. Can you share a pivotal moment or experience from your career journey that led you to your current role?
When I was a graduate student in Communications Engineering at The Ohio State University Columbus, I was the teaching assistant (TA) for a design project course. At the start of the course, the instructor had to set the specifications for the project, and he did that by making some estimations on a piece of paper lying on the desk. I was inspired by witnessing how he could perform what seemed to me a really complicated calculation so effortlessly.
Later in the semester, to better support the students, I spent a lot of time in the lab, making and re-making the project multiple times. It was through this experience that I learned what engineering was about — not only the application of scientific concepts but also experimentation, practical considerations and making estimations. Ironically, it was also through this experience that I realised my deeper interest in studying engineering learning and learning in general rather than engineering itself!
3. Transitioning from a background in communications engineering to educational technology and learning sciences is quite a leap. What inspired you to make this transition?
The foray into educational technology was somewhat by chance and faith. Given my interest in engineering learning but due to a lack of awareness of the learning sciences field, I was considering switching to a career in teaching engineering when I came across the Interdisciplinary Program in Educational Technology at Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. Discovering the kind of work happening there, I felt it would appeal to me. So, I approached a faculty there, who decided to take a chance and hire me as a research assistant. Within three months, I knew I was in the right place because I was excited about the role of technology in learning, and designing to help people learn better.
The decision to delve into the learning sciences happened after I read contemporary theories of science and engineering cognition. I felt a resonance with the curiosity from my communications engineering days — how do engineers work and learn — which inspired me to enter this field of research.
4. Your work focuses on technology-enhanced teaching-learning environments. Could you elaborate on a specific technology or tool that has had a significant impact on improving students’ real-world problem-solving skills in your experience?
There is no technology or tool that can, by itself, improve students’ real-world problem-solving skills. It is what students do — the quality of their interaction with the technology or the tool— that matters in improving students skills. For instance, as part of my PhD, I designed alearning environment called MEttLE to help engineering students learn estimation. What we found was that what distinguishes students who learned from those who didn’t is how they went about solving the estimation problem in MEttLE. Students who learned went through cycles of building models and reflecting, while those who did not learn went superficially through building models without reflecting.
Similarly, in other work with children trying to solve a minimum spanning tree problem in a learning environment called JUSThink, we found that teams who learned engaged in path-building actions, along with reflecting, while teams who didn’t learn, only performed path-building actions with much less reflection. So, the key lies in cycles of doing and reflecting. The question we should then ask is this: does the tool provide students the opportunities to have these quality interactions i.e. do and reflect?
5. Making and creativity seem to be central to your teaching philosophy. How do you strike a balance between structured curriculum and open-ended, creative exploration in your classroom?
Making and creativity are central to my classroom as well. The goals of my courses are that students should be able to analyse current learning experiences to identify what is and isn’t working, and design novel learning experiences that are likely to be more effective. The only way I know how to help my students achieve those goals is to make them analyse and design in my classroom!
Yes, we discuss concepts related to how people learn, but these discussions are interspersed heavily with activities that require students to be hands-on and minds-on by immediately applying the concepts to a small learning experience. The emphasis is not on the curriculum itself but on skills that I want students to take away at the end of the course.
6. Drawing from your own experiences, what advice would you give to young women who are aspiring to pursue careers in STEM fields, especially those that involve both technical and creative aspects?
In my experience women, especially young women, often demand perfection from themselves and feel like failure is the end of the world. That mindset is beneficial in a way because it reflects their hardworking and persistent nature. But it is also unsustainable.
My advice would be to become comfortable with tinkering and failing, and then standing up again.
I have found that it is important to accept that failure is a part of being human and own your failures as part of your life story. And when you stand up again, be observant, reflect on why you failed, and learn from it. Finally, be willing to adapt, and engage with the new path that has come your way.
7. During this entire journey, what do you consider your biggest successes? What have these taught you?
The ability to balance my multiple identities and interests – being a mom, a researcher, a cook, a friend, a writer and a woman — and embracing each identity wholly has been my greatest success.
I never shied away from any of them and made every attempt to grow each one of them through exploration of its facets. For instance, I took creative writing classes and joined a writing group to improve my craft. I dedicated hours to improve my cooking and baking skills. When my son was little, I devoted all my time and energy to provide him the space to explore and grow. This experience taught me that life cannot be compartmentalised, and our efforts to do so are counterproductive.
What we experience and learn from one role will always help us in other roles, so we must indulge and grow our interests. For instance, observing my son’s explorations inspired me to experiment with certain theories of cognition and learning, constantly improving my research.
8. In addition to your academic pursuits, I read that you’re interested in technical and creative writing. How do you find ways to merge these two seemingly different domains in your work and life?
Technical writing is my bread and butter as an academic. Being an academic means writing about your work, so it fits nicely with my interests. For creative writing, I took a few courses and there was a conversation in a creative nonfiction course regarding where one gets the material to write about. I like to think that my work and life is the muse for my creative writing — I live a life with multiple occupations to get material to write about! A poem is a way to express and process a difficult moment in life or work. An essay is a way to elaborate and think about a complicated decision. Ultimately writing is a tool to think and learn.
9. What is one change that, in your opinion, would hugely benefit aspiring women scientists?
A male professor, while advising me against considering a postdoc in a very prolific research group, told me it was a very “masculine” space and that “Masculinity inhibits cognition”. I think what he meant was that the research group’s culture emphasized abstractness, objectification, competition and control. In my opinion, having a culture in science that balances masculinity and femininity i.e. abstractness, objectification and control, balanced with collaboration and the recognition of subjective experiences and multiple paths to doing good science, would create a more inclusive environment for women in science, particularly for aspiring women scientists.
That said, I have been very fortunate that I have always been in — and continue to be in — such inclusive environments. So, such environments do exist, and I would encourage aspiring women scientists to not be discouraged by the existing scenario and seek out such inclusive environments.
10. What is the best advice you have received?
Decades ago, when I failed to clear the IIT-JEE, a very close family friend told me, “You are feeling sad because you are looking at your present, but the ‘master’ is looking at your future, and he sees something good.”
I am not very religious, but what I took away from her statement was this: don’t get bogged down by a present failure because there is a future, and that means there is hope.
This advice helped me get back up every time I failed and keep trying new things, and moving forward. This advice taught me to keep the faith.