Community Spotlight: Diane Levitt

May 9, 2020

STEM education opens doors to fulfilling learning experiences and careers, but too many of New York City’s youth don’t have access to engaging science, technology, engineering and mathematics resources. Without meaningful opportunities to discover and apply STEM, they don’t pursue it in school or professionally. NYC FIRST is highlighting the voices within our STEM community, many whom we would not be able to create the level of impact we are created.

We're highlighting Diane Levitt, Sr. Director of K-12 Education at Cornell Tech. A self-described “K-12 computer science evangelist,” Diane Levitt serves as a bridge between the Cornell Tech graduate campus (launched in 2011 on Roosevelt Island) and New York City’s K-12 computing education ecosystem. She recently led a coaching program that enables more public school teachers to teach computer science, especially to underprivileged students of color, and also convenes leaders to move the field forward at an annual conference, To Code and Beyond.

As a fierce advocate of the NYC FIRST STEM Center, Diane has been a true partner for us as we continue to enrich and expand STEM education within our community.

1.       Tell us a little about yourself

One thing that surprises people about me is that I have no formal education in tech. I went to Barnard College and majored in Women’s Studies and Anthropology, and got a Master’s degree in early childhood education. My graduate degree definitely helped prepare me to recognize and appreciate great teaching, and since early childhood pedagogy is usual project based, it was actually good preparation for computer science education. I grew up on Long Island but lived in LA for almost 20 years, and I love it there. I have two amazing kids, a son who’s just turned 30 and works in real estate, and a daughter who’s 26 and is actually a software engineer! (a coincidence)

2.       How did you get involved in the STEM world?

Before coming to Cornell Tech, I worked for a large global tech company, Belkin, as the director of corporate social responsibility. Our corporate giving was primarily focused on education. In addition, Belkin has an educational division, and I worked a bit on helping them to understand technology needs in the classroom when it was being launched. But I didn’t get deeply involved in computing education until I came to Cornell Tech.

3.       Why is STEM Education important to you?

My whole career has been about moving the needle for underserved youth, whether in education, health care, social services, or community development. I see STEM generally, and computer science specifically, as something that has the power to close the gap of opportunity for students by building their computational agency—their ability to navigate the digital world with fluency and purpose, at their own direction. But I also see computing as something that could widen the opportunity gap—if we don’t build the capacity of all students to understand computing, we will just reinforce the terrible inequity between affluent and low income.

4.       What failures helped shape who you are today/how you work?

Well, originally I wanted to be a doctor. I tried a biology class in college and had to drop it because I was so terrified of how hard I thought it would be. This was this crazy buzz about how much work the sciences were, and how hard it was to get into medical school, and I just got defeated by all the talk. It’s ironic because I went to a college that still gets more women per capita into medical school than any other institution in the country. But I was intimidated. That eventually sent me into education, which was a path of less resistance, but it also informs my strong belief that expectations are a very important part of access.

5.       What’s your top advice for young people to develop confidence in their abilities, and to pursue the career of their dream?

Young people need the support of the adults around them to make sure they are exposed to lots of different experiences and disciplines. That’s how we get to know ourselves. So I guess my advice would be, be as open as you can to new ideas and people, and find a few adults you can trust to be your tour guides to the world. I think the biggest mistake we make, especially young people, is not to ask for help, for directions, for advice from others because we don’t want to seem unsure. My whole career has been built on the relationships I’ve had with people who know more than me, and were willing to teach me what they knew.

6.       You've been a huge supporter of the NYC FIRST STEM Centers, why do you feel it's important to support initiatives such as this one?

The original idea behind the STEM Centers, of making robotics accessible to students underrepresented in tech, speaks right to the commitment to equity that drives all my work. The STEM Centers remove all the barriers to getting involved in robotics: time, cost, leadership. They open the doors wide for students! And, not surprisingly, the students thrive. Having the NYC FIRST STEM Center on the Cornell Tech campus is one of the things about my job I’m proudest of, and one of my favorite things about our campus. I love working with Talya Stein and Anne Goodfriend, and the relationship with NYC FIRST has been so rich with opportunities for me. I truly look forward to continuing to explore the way robotics can help us bring computing to life for all NYC students.