TU Wien Informatics

20 Years

#5QW: Martina Landman

  • By Theresa Aichinger-Fankhauser
  • 2024-03-15
  • eduLAB
  • Women in Informatics

Martina is a Ph.D. candidate in informatics education and organizer of eduLAB. She shows us what card games have to do with informatics.

#5QW: Martina Landman
Picture: Theresa Aichinger-Fankhauser / TU Wien Informatics

How would you describe your work in 90 seconds?

I work in computer science education. The goal of my research is to uncover children’s problem-solving skills. How do they recognize patterns? Which fundamental concepts of informatics can they grasp or even apply intuitively? And how can we design an informatics education that suits their needs while still challenging them? I’m working on these questions in my Ph.D. and at eduLAB.

To achieve this, we record children aged 10-14 on video as they attempt to solve algorithmic problems, searching for patterns in their solution strategies. These videos are analyzed to compare the strategies and interactions of different students in finding practical solutions. Especially now, many countries are developing new computer science curricula for schools. Through our research, we want to develop new learning methodologies and show educators how to create better and more accessible learning environments. We’re really glad to see that extra-curricular activities are becoming increasingly popular in schools. That’s what we offer at eduLAB, where I’m in charge of developing and organizing activities for children together with my colleague Lukas Lehner. I also train our tutors in the lecture Informatics Didactics. We’re always in need of new tutors because demand is high – in 2023, we hosted more than a hundred different activities, from workshops to programming classes and a summer camp. Roughly 3000 students participated, and we’re thrilled that the numbers climb every year.

How did you get in touch with informatics?

Growing up in the ‘90s, I witnessed the technological evolution of what’s now taken for granted. I’ve been keenly involved – from playing Snake on a Nokia 3210 to experiencing the first smartphones in high school. My interest in tech initially stemmed from my love for video games while studying in a science-focused track in junior high, mistakenly thinking computer science was all about gaming. However, my direction shifted drastically when I attended a music-focused high school. It was my computer science teacher who inspired me to pursue this field professionally. To me, his knowledge seemed boundless, spanning metal genres to programming, and I aspired to emulate that versatility. Coming from a non-academic family, they supported me in every possible way, despite not being the first to have a mobile phone or laptop. I eventually became the family’s IT specialist, always on call for tech emergencies, like ‘Martina, I think I’ve deleted the internet’.

What makes informatics so fascinating for you?

Maybe because I’m also a musician, I love to connect creativity with logic. That’s what informatics is for me. Programming requires creativity to devise solutions to problems, it is the prerequisite to seamlessly integrate them into the realm of logic. After school, I initially thought I’d only be programming and visualizing, inspired by video games. My fondness for mathematics led me to pursue a degree in teaching math and computer science. Now, I recognize the profound interconnection of these fields in our daily lives.

In my work, it’s most fascinating to see how intuitively children approach informatics concepts. Take the easy task of sorting cards in a group. Children tend to divide tasks among their peers to then merge them into a cohesive whole at the end – like in a distributed system. We’ve observed that children employ different data structures in their sorting process: Some lay out the cards in a manner akin to an array, while others use a stack, placing cards on top of each other for efficiency. Often, they explain the advantages of ‘their’ data structure, like the visibility of all cards at any time in an array, or quickly adding sorted cards on top like in a stack – showing how intuitively they can grasp seemingly foreign concepts. Children even engage in ‘task-stealing’, taking tasks from each other if someone finishes early. This not only keeps everyone engaged but also mimics real-world scenarios where workload distribution and resource allocation are key. Overall, these exercises reveal the profound level of computer science concepts that children apply naturally without prior formal education. It is all there – we just need to make them see how diverse and interesting computer science can be.

Which talents should people bring along for a career in informatics?

Logical thinking, coupled with creativity, is essential. It’s important not to be deterred by the stereotypical ‘nerdy’ image or any initial fear. Following your own path, especially when you believe in your solution, is crucial – and requires perseverance. I found this to be very challenging at first. I felt that the way men approach programming differed from mine, and although we all reached a solution, this was unsettling to me in the beginning. It also highlights the importance of diversity in this field – innovation stagnates if we always stick to the familiar. My advice to new students is not to be discouraged by difficulties or mistakes. They are a natural part of the learning process. In fact, debugging is basically all you’ll do later on (laughs), so better get those valuable skills as early as possible.

Why do you think there are still so few women in computer science?

The reasons for the gender gap are plenty. They are deeply rooted in societal norms that pigeonhole girls into certain roles while expecting different behaviors from boys. There’s a pressing need for more role models and equality, reshaping not only the image of computer science from a ‘nerdy’ stereotype to one that embraces femininity but also encouraging all genders, not just girls and women, to explore their interests freely – even if these interests are traditionally deemed ‘feminine’.

I often found myself as one of the few, or even the only, girl in my classes and later in the field. However, I never let this deter me, finding camaraderie through shared interests like video games. During my studies, I noticed a tendency for women to band together, forming supportive communities – especially in environments where men might have a more technical background, such as a diploma from a technical high school. Coming from a general high school, I felt the need to work twice as hard, both to catch up in programming speed and to finance my studies through side jobs like tutoring. This also allowed me to pass on my knowledge.

In the end, it’s hard to keep children away from gender stereotypes. One option would be to broaden the stereotypes until they change on their own. Integrating more female-associated elements into technology and vice versa could help bridge this gap early on, making the field more accessible. We need to show that computer science is ideally suited for people with feminine interests.

About Martina Landman

Martina Landman is a doctoral candidate and university assistant in the field of computer science education at TU Wien Informatics, focusing on the problem-solving strategies of school children. She graduated in mathematics and informatics educations, and has several years of teaching experience from a general secondary school in Austria, where she taught computer science and mathematics to students from grades 5 to 12. Recently, Martina won the best presentation award at ISSEP 2023, and is currently taking part in the children’s TV info series Hallo okidoki at Austrian Broadcasting (ORF).

Martina plays a key role in leading and organizing the TU Wien Informatics eduLAB. She also teaches the course Informatics Didactics, which is dedicated to developing and evaluating workshop activities. If you want to become a tutor at eduLAB, make sure to reach out to Martina and join her courses!

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