Behind the Scenes

The Goal

Engage kids; especially those from backgrounds typically underrepresented in the Computer Science field, with interactive activities teaching computer science and computational thinking by way of evolutionary biology!


The Story

Una-May O’Reilly, PhD, a Principal Research Scientist  and founder of the Anyscale Learning For All (or ALFA group) at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), MIT and Erik Hemberg, PhD, piloted a class with 3rd year students at Shantou University in China in 2013 - 2015. The class used active learning to teach students evolutionary biology and computer science through computational thinking. Students cemented that knowledge by then engaging online technology. As of 2015, Shantou University has committed to teaching the course in Chinese.


Success with the course inspired Una-May and Erik to reach out to a younger crowd. With the active learning exercises from the course at Shantou as inspiration, they have devised a workshop to teach kids evolutionary biology and computer science. Evolution in Action! has now become a reality. Its exercises teach the fundamentals of computational thinking by having individuals become the computer that steps through the algorithm in the classroom. Thus without the use of a computer, this workshop encourages kids to problem solve in a computational way.


The Players

Una-May O’Reilly, PhD is founder of the AnyScale Learning For All (ALFA) group. She has expertise in evolutionary algorithms, big data, scalable machine learning, and frameworks for large-scale, automated knowledge mining, prediction and analytics. She educates MIT students on state of art techniques that address the challenges spanning data integration to knowledge extraction. Her teaching credits include the annual GECCO introductory tutorial on Genetic Programming , the first tutorial on Genetic Programming in China (2009, Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Summit, Shanghai, China ) and STU EPS 101. She has co-taught active learning modules at MIT’s UPOP IAP “Introduction to Engineering Practice Workshop” and a lab and lecture based MIT course in the School of Engineering entitled: Robotics: Systems and Science.


Erik Hemberg, PhD is a Post Doctoral researcher in the ALFA group in CSAIL at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Hemberg received his PhD in Computer Science from University College Dublin, Ireland. He co-taught and developed educational technology for STU EPS 101. He has taught and developed Computer Science outreach courses for high school kids at University College Dublin during his time there. Before his PhD he developed eLearning software for micro economic simulations. He performs research regarding scalable machine learning. He is currently involved in research regarding tax evasion and physiological time series prediction.



Nicole Hoffman is Project Assistant for ALFA group, CSAIL, MIT. Nicole graduated from Emmanuel College in Boston, MA with a BA in Sociology and American History. Nicole came on board at ALFA in the spring of 2015 to provide her organizational expertise to the group. She assists with organizational and coordination aspects of student, industry, and government contracted projects. Nicole has been vital in the coordination of the Evolution in Action! workshop at GECCO 2016, Denver. She was assistant teacher at Evolution in Action! at Charlestown High in Dec 2015. Having a deep love of technology, teaching, and learning, Nicole is proud the Evolution in Action! workshop is her first experience teaching children.