The Acronym recently got the opportunity to interview IMSA’s newest computer science teacher Dr. Ashwin Mohan, to learn more about his background and future goals at IMSA.
Dr. Ashwin Mohan was born and raised in India, attending the University of Mumbai for his undergraduate education before moving to America to pursue his masters degree in Engineering at the University of Missouri-Columbia. After pursuing research at Washington University in St. Louis for the past decade, he decided to transition to teaching at IMSA, where he will join the Computer Science department. This semester he will be teaching Computer Science Inquiry (CSI), but in the future he plans on expanding into more computer science seminar classes, and hopes to bring his neuroscience background to IMSA.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to become a teacher?
Dr. Mohan: I should start first by talking about my interests. I remember being exposed to various aspects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at an early age. During middle school, I remember going to the library and reading books on genes, space research, nanotechnology, etc. It was also a time when my world was constantly being influenced by the growing presence of computers or breakthroughs in biotechnology. I recall the excitement and discussion around the cloning of “Dolly, the sheep”.
All that initial exposure shaped my worldview. I believed a lot of positive change could be brought about with a scientific bent of mind. The “why” of almost everything was intriguing. That deep interest and curiosity stayed with me through high school and later while pursuing my Engineering degree. This innate curiosity is perhaps why I never stopped exploring the world of STEM, many a time through random conversations with like-minded individuals. The pursuit of science and understanding concepts went beyond grades.
When I finished my engineering degree, I opted to work for a bit to get some practical experience. However, I quickly realized that my thirst for knowledge and discovery superseded what I had learned, and this hunger to be exposed to cutting-edge work in STEM brought me to the United States. As a graduate student, I was involved in several exciting interdisciplinary projects, which made me further realize the many ways I could apply my engineering skills.
As a graduate student, I wanted to be good with my core skills and other soft skills, so I got involved with a lot of K-12 outreach work. I co-developed a Robotics curriculum using LEGO NXT that brought together semi-urban and inner-city school kids together. I managed a National Science Foundation funded program that was focused on creating partnerships between graduate engineering students and K-12 Science teachers to promote STEM in middle schools in semi-urban and rural areas and teach graduate students about pedagogy and professional soft skills. That exposed me to the opportunities and challenges our teachers and students face in the education system.
Through my career experiences, I came to realize that the world of teaching gave me an opportunity to connect with people, share my experiences and passion for STEM, and, importantly, create an impact in their lives. That motivated me to become a teacher.
How important do you think it is for students to learn computer science?
Dr. Mohan: The landscape of computer science (CS) is constantly evolving – it is important to realize that computer science is field-agnostic, meaning it doesn’t care whether you’re an English major or a lawyer. All of those careers will continue to be significantly impacted by CS. With the rapid emergence and adoption of artificial intelligence (AI), it is imperative to proactively engage with CS at all levels, from updating our knowledge base to getting involved to understand its inner workings. An educational foundation in CS will not only enable us to create greater awareness but also lead us to ask good questions and, more importantly, inform us as a society to make equity-minded decisions and policies.
How would you describe the teaching philosophy?
Dr. Mohan: As I mentioned before, I consider myself to be a life-long learner and constantly challenge myself to think critically. I bring that into my classroom. My goal is for my students to be able to commit to a process of learning, to remain independent thinkers, and in that process, evolve and transform into life-long learners. The desire to improve oneself is at the core of learning, so those are elements I like to promote in the classroom. Learning happens for different people in different ways and at different times. To be able to grow in our capabilities requires a commitment to learn. So, as long as we make that commitment to ourselves, I’m very flexible with how people learn. And then the most important part of having a growth mindset is the ability to enlighten others around you. When we have a growth mindset, we don’t see others primarily as competitors but as people from whom we can potentially learn (and learn from us). Through humility, compassion, and kindness, all of those elements not just help empower others but also enrich who we are. So that’s the sort of environment that I want to foster in the classroom.
Was there anything that stood out about IMSA that made you want to be a teacher here?
Dr. Mohan:. IMSA students are already motivated and hungry for knowledge, so it’s all the more exciting because I’m not trying to sell the importance of STEM, but I can start asking, how far can I go with such motivated students? How can I challenge them without causing stress? It also stretches my faculties as a scientist which is exciting! Dr. Seuss’ words resonate with me the most when I think of IMSA students. To quote him from Oh, the Places You’ll Go….
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” “Kid, you’ll move mountains.
Knowing that you’ve done research in the past, do you have any interest in continuing research in something like a student-led SIR?
Dr. Mohan: Oh, absolutely! Research is close to my heart and something I am deeply passionate about. As an Educator now, one of my goals is to be able to explore the world of possibilities, bringing my research experience from engineering, neuroscience, and cardiology into the world of IMSA. I am certain that there will be different opportunities to collaborate and pursue interdisciplinary research, so I’m kind of excited to see what I can do with the students here. As I said, IMSA students are already driven, so once you find the right combination, there’s a lot that can be accomplished.
Is there anything else that you’d like IMSA students to know about you?
Dr. Mohan: I’m very approachable, and my office space is always open for conversation. I’m also very proud of the students in my class and thrilled about what I’ve seen so far in the IMSA community. I am humbled to be part of an institution that is steeped in some rich history, and, importantly, an institution that fosters kindness and humility while remaining future-centric.
Note: Dr. Mohan is also currently looking for volunteers to help with grading! If you’re interested, stop by his office or send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.