Our Department isn't defined by the physical space we occupy on the campus of UCSD - it is defined, rather, by the remarkable individuals who make up our community. The lifeblood of any community is its people, and this is especially true of a community that relies on ideas and innovations. In recognition of this, the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD presents our new "Alumnus/Alumna of the Month" feature.
The goal of the Alumnus of the Month program is to celebrate some of our outstanding Alumni, while giving all students - past, present, and future - an opportunity to meet some of our graduates, and to see some of the amazing things that people from our community have accomplished - in the field of Cognitive Science and beyond.
The hope is that it will both put a more 'human' face on Cognitive Science, as well as be a testimony to the wide range of interesting things that one can do with a Cognitive Science background. In addition, of course, it's a means for CogSci alumni to see what other alumni are up to.
Ed Langstroth received his B.S. in Cognitive Science from UCSD in 2003, with specializations in HCI and Computation. After a short stint as a usability engineer, Ed ended up working for Nissan North America, where he did extensive user research to help define the current and next generation of Nissan and Infiniti cars. After Nissan, Ed spent several years at a similar position at Volkswagen, before he decided to follow his heart and become a teacher. He currently teaches in West Oakland as a Teach for America corps member. He loves surfing, food, and of course car - some of his past fleet have included a Nissan 350Z, a Porsche Boxster S, a Bentley Continental Flying Spur, and a 1972 Datsun 240Z race car.
When you were at UCSD, how did you decide to major in Cognitive Science?
I came to UCSD as a bioengineering major, and I worked for a quarter and a half in bioengineering, and I decided that bioengineering was absolutely not for me. Which was odd, because I was sure that it was when I showed up. I had taken the Cognitive Science 17 class, which was the lower division neurobiology of cognition class, and I loved it. I absolutely loved studying the brain in that way. Then, my freshman summer I interned at a high-tech company doing usability studies. I worked in a usability lab creating some eye tracking tests and setting up the eye tracking software. I loved it, and recognized that I wanted to be doing usability. I saw that Cognitive Science/Human-Machine Interaction was the closed thing to it, so I decided to officially switch my major my sophomore year.
Were there any experiences in Cognitive Science at UCSD that you found particularly memorable or enjoyable?
Absolutely. The 102C class with Professor Hollan was amazing. It really taught me how to apply all the things I had learned in my internships, and how to use the natural skills that brought me to cognitive science. Doing the contextual interview process, looking at users as being the experts, and being an ethnographer for product design was a really exciting process. It made me realize that this is the kind of thing that I love — the kind of thing that I want to do.
Also, I took a 160 with John Batali, and we looked at the evolution of cognition. It was one of the coolest classes ever. We looked at a lot of evolutionary stable states, game theory of progress, and learning how to program those things and see how they work quantitatively. I had always understood and liked the computation side, but that’s what really taught me how to apply computation to some of the softer things we had done through the 102 series.
Starting at UCSD, what was your career path to where you are now?
While I was still at UCSD, the first internship I had was with a company that was called GeoCast, and they quickly went under. That was back in 2000 and the dot-com bust was underway. My sophomore year I actually worked at a computer camp teaching kids how to program. My junior year I worked at a company called eAssist where I was doing UI design of a CRM software package. During my senior year I worked at a company called Akonix, where we did secure instant messaging. I started out as a usability intern. Upon graduation, they gave me a full time job as a software developer. So I was doing software design, making interfaces for this secure instant messaging company. It was a good time, but the environment was very cube-like and involved a lot of coding, and I soon wanted to spread my wings a bit. I remember during 102C, Professor Hollan had Deborah Forster come from Nissan Design America, and she told the class about some of the work that she had done. It made me think, “Wow, Nissan is a really open-minded company when it comes to user research. I’m going to go work for them one day.” One day I was looking on the Nissan website, and saw that there was an opening in something called “Advanced Planning and Strategy.” Basically, what the description said is that it was doing research to aid in the concept design and strategy for future vehicles. I thought it sounded awesome and was what I wanted to do. I applied once and didn’t get it, but then I talked to Professor Hollan, and he put me in touch with Deborah, she forwarded my name on, I got an interview, and I got the job.
I worked for Nissan North America in the Advanced Planning and Strategy Department for about three and a half years, and worked on a bunch of new and next-generation cars. They eventually moved to Tennessee, which I did not want to do, so then I went to work for Volkswagen. The Volkswagen group has an electronics research lab in Palo Alto, and that’s where I worked. At Volkswagen, I started out as a UI designer but then I quickly applied my experiences at Nissan into being much more of a strategist. The lab was kind of infamous for making these amazing things that didn’t quite fit with production plans. So I wrangled the innovations together and basically sold them to the people at Volkswagen corporate. I also found out about the needs of the Volkswagen group and gave them to our engineers so we could make things that were actually useful. I worked on a bunch of show cars and a bunch of different innovations, some of which haven’t come out yet. – even things like a bunch of autonomous driving cars. I worked there for about another 3.5-4 years, and my final title there was platform coordinator.
What did you do after Volkswagen?
Eventually, a bunch of different things happened, but I had always kind of thought about teaching when I came out of college. I worked at Torrey Pines High School while I was in college for a program called AVID. That is a program that gave middle-of-the-road kids an opportunity to go to college. When I graduated, I had a big decision: Do I go make money or do I go teach? I choose to go make money, because I was the first in my family to go to college, and I never really had a lot growing up, so I went and made good money. But then I started to think about how life is short, and I’ve always said that one day I’ll go back to teaching, one day I’ll retire, but why not do it now? At the same time, my old boss, the guy who hired me into Volkswagen, was actually working for Tesla at the time and was on a private plane that crashed. There were three Tesla employees on a flight to LA that crashed, and it was crazy to think, “Oh my god, Brian Finn is dead.” And it makes you think that life really is short. Why put off what you want to do just because of money? So I ended up joining Teach for America, I was placed in the Bay Area Corp, and right now I’m teaching in West Oakland, teaching 7th and 8th grade science.
Did your experience in Cognitive Science play into the way that approached the positions at Nissan and Volkswagen?
Absolutely, and it also definitely fits in with what I do now. With Nissan, a lot of what I did was quantitative studies, where we would create these big questionnaires for people would do, and we’d have thousands and thousands of subjects, and then be able to do a quantitative segmentation based on that data to identify different needs groups that we would target. From there, we would do qualitative ethnographic interviews, home visits, and home placement programs where we would put cars in peoples’ driveways and let them switch between them for about two weeks. All of that was based on creating a target customer that we would establish for the vehicle, and then pass on to our designers, our engineers, and our product planners, so that they could execute the vision for this perfect person that we’d created. A lot of the stuff that we did in 102C applied directly to that. At VW, my work was a little more applied, and I was doing more strategic things, but there again I did lots of research and a lot of optimization for the U.S. market. The Volkswagen group includes Volkswagen, Audi, Bentley, Bugatti , Lamborghini, Seat, Skoda, and Porsche. So a lot of things were optimized for the German market, but being able to speak on behalf of the U.S. market was really crucial and important. So we had to do a lot of research of U.S. users and how they interact with different things. We did tons of research on new prototypes and show-car-type stuff to see how effective they would be, and see where the wrinkles where going to surface so we could iron them out before production.
And how do you use Cognitive Science currently as a teacher?
As a teacher I use Cognitive Science everyday. User-centered design is so important, because my end users are my students. Being able to have their needs in mind, along with the principal’s needs and the state’s needs, is so important. They other thing is that I can make an amazing test. When you think about tests, you might think back to when you were in school and saw tests as a chance for you to prove how much you know. But that’s not the case. For a good, effective teacher, a test is a tool for the teacher to use to see how well they taught. So every single test is a questionnaire. It is a quantitative piece of research that you’re running. Your ability to write a good questionnaire, or a good test, and to be able to analyze it properly, is essential to know what you’ve taught well and what you need to re-teach. So I use a lot of the same principles — having a good hypothesis going in, asking good questions, knowing what I’m looking for with every single question, being able to segment students based on who gets it and who doesn’t, and recognizing high and low students on the same standard so they can help each other. Cognitive Science really gives you a great framework of how to think. It gives you such great insights on how your brain works, how you interact with society, how you interact with the machines around you. It gives you the chance to be really good at whatever you’re doing.
Can you describe some specific things that you’ve worked on? Maybe some specific projects at Nissan or Volkswagen, and some specific things you’ve done in the classroom?
Sure, I’ll give an automotive and a teaching example. One really fun example is when I was working for Nissan and I was tasked with making the next generation 350Z, which would become the 370Z. We knew that it was the iconic sports car for Nissan; we knew that we couldn’t just do the same exact research we would do for a minivan. So for the quantitative research we did for that one, we did things a little different, in that we looked at a lot of the emotional aspects. It was really fun to do a quantitative study on emotion, and to be able to pick a type of sports car that we wanted it to become, based on emotion. That was really fun. I knew that there was a huge, loyal following, so we snuck into an owner driving event. There was a forum where a bunch of owners would talk and hang out, and they would organize these ride-and-drives. They would get all their cars and drive from the ocean and go up some mountain roads and the come back and have dinner, or something like that. There would be 50 Zs all lined up. So we kind of snuck into one of those. We rode with people, and talked with people, and found out from these enthusiasts what they liked and didn’t like about their car. We recognized that this would be just one small subset of people that we would have to satisfy, but an important one, and making sure that we had a strong loyal base to go forward was important. We categorized some of them as leaders and some as followers, and we pulled some of the leaders out and included them in other qualitative driving research. We were constantly refreshing back to these gurus and mavens, and it was a really cool piece of research that was very different.
Teaching-wise, one thing that I really enjoy about the cognitive science perspective is that we learn so much about how we think. Knowing how we think helps me to become a better teacher, in that I know that students are going to remember a lot more about what they figure out themselves, and what information they can associate with a bunch of different modalities, than if they are just told something. So you have to get the visual-spatial, the proprioceptive, the kinesthetic — all of these different aspects of learning have to come into play. I try to do as many of these different types of learning as I can. One fun thing I did recently with my seventh-graders was during a natural selection lesson, and I wanted to be able to demonstrate natural selection organically in the classroom. I had some plastic forks, knives, and spoons, and I split them up evenly amongst all the different students, so they each got one at random. They had a dixie cup full of beans, and an empty dixie cup. In thirty seconds, they had to use their tool, which kind of mimicked a beak from one of Darwin’s finches, by moving just one bean at a time from the full cup to the empty cup, and get as many as they could in thirty seconds. At the end of the thirty seconds, I found out which utensil had the most beans transferred over, and this would be the most fit, and find out which utensil would have the least amount of beans transferred, and this one would die off. As you can probably guess, the knives did very poorly and the spoons did very well, and we tracked this across many different generations. We saw how the knives slowly died off and how there were a lot more spoons in the population. Then I introduced a new piece of food, and it was a piece of rigatoni that was very easy to get with the fork, but harder with the spoon. Then we saw how the fork increased and the spoon leveled off. The students could see unfolding before their eyes how these different subsets could develop based on their food sources. The reason we do that kind of thing is because, in addition to being fun to do, it ties together all these neurological aspects that I know about the students and about acquiring knowledge that really comes from having this cognitive science background.
What have been the most challenging aspects of your jobs?
In the automotive jobs, I would say that building the perfect thing for the user is not what you always want to do, because chances are that you’re not going to make any money off of it. So if you build the perfect car for somebody, you would not be able to sell it and still make a profit. So that’s one really difficult thing, that you’re always fighting against profitability. Certain cars are very profitable, and at the end of the day that’s what you need to be making. Another thing that’s really difficult is that you can’t just talk to a consumer and ask what he wants. You have to be able to recognize his needs and think for him. That was kind of a difficult thing. At first, I want to think, “Oh, but he said he wants this!” But he doesn’t really want that. You have to be able to recognize what he says he wants, but then innovate and make something proper for him. I gave a talk at Nate Bolt’s User Research Friday and used the Homer Simpson car example.
In teaching, I would say the most difficult things are changing the student’s mindset. If they grew up in a culture and community where education is not important, it’s very difficult to change that and show them that education really is important. It’s very difficult to show them that I’m not going anywhere, because for a lot of my students, the adults in their lives have given up on them. They can learn just fine, but they often get in the way of themselves. So fighting through all those other things is not about giving a great lesson, it’s about getting to the point where we can get them to learn. I would say that’s the most difficult part about teaching.
Is there any advice that you would offer to current UCSD Cognitive Science students?
Yes! Definitely, when you’re looking for an internship for the summer, understand you are the valuable commodity. You should look at internships as opportunities to see as many different fields as you want. Don’t think, “I need to get this internship!” but rather “What is this internship going to offer me?”. Two, I would say “Make your own luck.” I remember Ed Hutchins spoke at my commencement, and he asked if good people, or successful people, were lucky. And it really comes down to making your own luck. Get to know your professors, talk to them after class, work in a lab. Create these opportunities for yourself and go get the jobs that you want. Chances are that you’re not going to find your perfect job, but you’ll find a great place to work and make a position out of it. For both of my jobs, I was hired in as something a little bit different from what I ended up doing. At Volkswagen, a lot different. You need to create the opportunities that you want for yourself, be your own best agent, and not wait for things to come to you.
Finally, what are you favorite things to do when you’re not working?
I love to surf. I still try to get out into the water as much as I can up in Northern California. I love to eat. Good food, it doesn’t have to be expensive, but sometimes it is. Cars. I have way too many, but I just love to drive. If you can get yourself out on a track, that’s an experience that is hard to beat.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Yes. I’ve been coming back to San Diego to speak in Jim Hollan’s 102C classes every single year that I’ve been out. The reason why I do it is because it is such an important class. It’s super-applied to the things that you will actually do when you get out of college. The things I learned in this class have followed me all throughout. I can’t come back and give enough, because I remember being in that seat and thinking, “How am I going to get a job?”. It’s possible, and you just have to be your own advocate, think for yourself, and use that unique cognitive science mindset to get you forward. To think for your customer, to speak on behalf of your customer (because no one else will), and to fight for customer needs and balance that out with profitability or whatever other constraints you have. It’s a pleasure to always be back, and I hope to be here many years in the future.
To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at email@example.com.