Lara LetawWhen she was about 10 years old, Lara Letaw, now a computer science instructor and researcher at Oregon State University, recalls learning HTML and the ins and outs of developing websites from her father, a software engineer. She dove right in and created a pet care website and wrote articles for her new site. One section on rabbit care gained quite a following – children would email Letaw questions, and she would post answers. The website was even featured in a book, Rabbits for Dummies.

When it came time for college, Letaw enrolled at University of Washington. Despite her early success in developing websites, she hadn’t yet quite made the connection that, since she enjoyed making websites, she might also like computer science. Not yet settled on a career path, Letaw explored several majors including English, art, and biology.

But after a year, the cost of out-of-state tuition had become unaffordable and she returned home to Pleasant Hill, a small town near Eugene, Oregon. Still wanting to finish her degree, she enrolled at University of Oregon where she took a Python programming course and immediately found a direction for her career.

After graduating with a degree in computer science, Letaw began a master’s program at UO and began doing research in computer security. But she grew impatient with the pace of her research project.

“Computer science moves so fast that by the time we get research out there, it’s no longer state-of-the-art, and that really bothered me,” she noted. “I wanted my work to be directly applicable to people’s lives.”

She decided to take a full-time job as a web developer instead, but that wasn’t satisfying either.

“I was kind of lost for a while,” Letaw said. “I moved to Seattle, where my sister lived. I was doing manual labor at a veterinary clinic and working 13 hours a day. After several months, I was exhausted and I wasn’t making enough money to be able to live there.”

Looking around for other possibilities, she came across the Oregon State’s new master’s degree in software innovation, and liked what she saw. The program places an emphasis on software architecture and development, and requires students to create a new kind of software. Letaw liked the idea of being able to apply computer science to develop an innovative product.

She began emailing Chris Scaffidi, who was then the director of the program, but was still unsure this was the path she wanted to take. After about a month, Scaffidi reached out to Letaw to see if she was still interested in the program. “I felt so supported that I decided to just go for it,” she said.

One of the first courses she took was in inclusive design, taught by Distinguished Professor Margaret Burnett, and Letaw found what she had been looking for.

“After I took that course, I realized that that’s what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know that area existed,” she explained.

Letaw knew then that her software innovation project would be one that could help her grandmother, who lived alone and was interested in technology. Letaw’s family had given her grandmother a laptop, but it was too complicated for her to use. Her grandmother would get viruses she couldn’t fix and popup windows she couldn’t close.

“We just wanted her to have something really simple that she could use to keep in contact with the family because we were in Oregon and my grandmother was living in Texas,” Letaw said. “Before I started the degree program, I was thinking about starting my own business to make software that’s better for older adults.”

Letaw’s software project involved creating an age-inclusive video phone system that was intuitive to use and unlikely to break. And if the system did fail, it would reset itself so it didn’t get in a permanently bad state.

After Letaw completed her master’s degree, Burnett immediately hired her as a part-time researcher for the GenderMag project, which helps software developers and usability professionals find and fix software features with gender-inclusiveness “bugs.” Around the same time, Letaw was also hired as an instructor for the School of EECS’s online programs, which wasn’t much of a stretch.

Lara Letaw on a motorcycleLara Letaw likes taking long, solo road trips. It gives her time to think and solve problems.

“I realized that way back when I had that pet care website, writing articles for people and answering their questions through email, I was choosing to be an online instructor,” she said.

Letaw is thrilled that she is able to bridge the two areas of inclusive design and online teaching. She has integrated GenderMag’s principles into the online course she teaches, resulting in positive outcomes for students.

One of the ways Letaw helped students feel more included was to teach them about cognitive learning styles. For example, some people like to use tutorials to learn how to use a piece of software; others want to jump right in and tinker around to figure out how it works. When students learn different cognitive styles exist, they realize that the software itself sometimes does not support their particular cognitive style.

“One student told me they had been a computer science student for three years and they felt like an imposter because they weren’t a tinkerer,” Letaw explained. “And that’s one reason why students felt more included because they saw their own cognitive styles represented in the course content.”

On the research side of her job, Letaw is working with Kean University in New Jersey to incorporate the GenderMag principles throughout their computer science curriculum. This will help students not only feel validated with their learning styles, they will also be taught to think about end users’ cognitive styles when designing software. And because Kean is a smaller university, it is an ideal setting to study the cumulative effect of these changes over time.

“Any product that we’re designing for other people to use needs to work for everybody, and not just ourselves,” she said. “We need to consider people who are different from us and improve our designs for everyone.”

When she’s not teaching classes or working on research, Letaw likes taking solo road trips and not necessarily having a destination or goal in mind.

“I was thinking about the time when I was living in Seattle and being really lost,” she said. “And I realized that I kind of like that feeling of being lost.”

She also likes having the time on the road to think.

“People don’t often get the opportunity to just be with themselves and their own minds, and that’s a good time to figure things out,” she said.

By Gale Sumida
September 2021