Excellence in STEM: Dr. Dan Garcia

Teaching Professor in EECS at UC Berkeley
IEEE Computer Society Team
Published 10/06/2022
Share this on:

The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force presents Excellence in STEM, with Dr. Dan Garcia, Teaching Professor in EECS at UC Berkeley

Dr. Garcia is a champion of changing the educational paradigm of “fixed time, variable learning” to “fixed learning, variable time.” In this way, the bar for quality is not changed, but students are empowered with the flexibility they need to meet that bar.

Keep reading, as you’ll want to know Dr. Garcia’s advice for early career professionals and students. We’ll give you a hint. It’s an acronym – LAUGH!

Why Did You Choose Your Current Technical Field?

Dr. Garcia When I was ten (in 1978), my mom took me to her Swarthmore reunion, where I met Ted Nelson, who was gracious enough to sit this hyperactive kid down in front of the text-based game “hunt the wumpus,” which floored me. At home in upstate New York, I grew up with the earliest video games (Pong, Space Invaders, etc.) in the arcades and on my home Atari 2600 system. I thought I’d be a video game designer or a stand-up comic since I also found myself incredibly drawn to the humor of Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin, and could (and still can) repeat entire bits from their routines. I did quite well in all my math classes and had my first real exposure to programming in the second semester of my 11th grade Pre-Calculus class, where we learned BASIC. My teacher, Mr. White, would let me walk around to answer questions after I finished my programming tasks in class, and I found I really loved helping others.

When I got to MIT as an undergraduate, I was considering either math or CS as a major, and found CS much more engaging. I “hit my stride” my sophomore year when I partnered in a few classes with my good friend Roberto Sanchez Ramos (the son of the former Governor of Puerto Rico, who went on to be Puerto Rico’s Attorney General) – and learned the value of finding an “academic soulmate.” I took a computer graphics class from Marc Raibert, absolutely fell in love with that CS sub-field, and got into UC Berkeley to study graphics with Brian Barsky (who was also a fan of old-school stand-up comedy – see how it all connects?). I loved my years working as a TA for Brian’s graphics and animation classes, and taught 16 courses over six years together with him (they tell me that’s the UC Berkeley TA record). Near the end of my nearly-ten-year PhD career, I found out they had an opening for a lecturer, which had exactly the right balance of teaching-research-service I had been looking for. I applied and had the fortune of being chosen!

Teaching CS channels all of my interests and talents – working with brilliant TAs and colleagues, helping students, learning new skills (since the field of CS changes so fast), making up fun problems for exams and projects, and lecturing to a large audience lets me have a captive audience to use humor to introduce material. I truly love broadening participation in computing to students underrepresented in our field, especially through the CS0 course I designed called “The Beauty and Joy of Computing (BJC).” I couldn’t imagine a better career fit; I’ve been at UC Berkeley for 33 years, and our campus is well on track to becoming a Hispanics Serving Institution! Wepa!

What does a typical day or week look like for you as a Teaching Professor in EECS at UC Berkeley

Dr. Garcia A typical day involved driving to campus around 8am, arriving at 9am, and taking my electric unicycle down the hill to my first class, “CS61C: Geat Ideas in Computer Architecture,” at 10 am, which I co-teach with the awesome Lisa Yan to 750 students (although only 100 show up in person for lecture). After class, I unicycle up the hill to my GamesCrafters computational game theory research and development 11 am group meeting, where 15 students and I are trying to “(strongly) solve big game.” At noon, I go to EECS faculty lunch, where there’s typically 30 minutes of socializing and 30 minutes of business. At 1 pm, I hold CS61C office hours; typically, 5-10 students drop by to ask questions. I walk downstairs for our CS61C staff meeting from 2-3 pm, and back upstairs for my 3-4 pm CS Ed Research group meeting, which has ~20 students in it, both in my office and online. After that, I drive home, help with supper, and have family time until 7 pm, when I do my daily after-dinner ablution of walking 3 miles at a brisk 15min/mile clip. I’ll typically get back online around 9 pm and work until midnight.

What’s been your greatest professional challenge as a member of the Latino community, and how did you overcome it?

Dr. Garcia I’ll say “Impostor Syndrome” has been the hardest for me – whenever I was in a new setting (first year at MIT, or UC Berkeley, or joining faculty), I absolutely NEVER spoke up. I was terrified I would be “found out” and that they had given the position to the wrong “Dan Garcia.” I only learned that the paralyzing fear I had was quite common and even had a name several years after I had crawled out of my cocoon. I will say it really helped when my friend and colleague Robert Wilensky (who has since passed) would regularly come to me after I had spoken up during faculty lunch and say “Hey, thanks for sharing that. That was a great point!”, so now I try to do that for young faculty.

What is one piece of advice you can give Latino students and/or early career professionals?

Dr. Garcia I regularly give this advice during my “end of semester” lecture, and it’s an easy-to-remember acronym, LAUGH:

  • Lean In – take initiative (to sit in the front of lecture, to go to faculty office hours, to ask that question in lecture, to join a research group, to ask out the person you’re crushing on, etc.).
  • Academic Soulmate – find someone you work well with (at the level of finishing each others’ sentences) to take classes together, and take every project class together.
  • Underground Project – have something you’re working on outside of class; when you’re in line at the DMV, don’t play on your phone, think about continuing to build features into your pet project.
  • Give Back – with your time and/or money, to folks earlier in the pipeline than you.
  • Have Fun! – don’t miss the forest for the trees. Travel! Try a new sport! You’ll never hear anyone on their deathbed say: “I wish I spent more time at work”!

What would you consider are Hispanic traits or behaviors instilled by your family that have made you successful?

Dr. Garcia Two come to mind – doing what you love and giving back. I always felt my family gave me the implicit message that following one’s passion was the key to success, independent of the money it brought in. When I was in graduate school for almost a decade, I never got the “so, when are you going to graduate and start earning?” vibe – everyone was always super supportive and perked up when they could see how much I was enjoying school. My Abuela’s house in the Bronx was always full of family and friends who would drop in anytime and enjoy her company and amazing food. That spirit of generosity, of “what’s mine is yours” I try to embody as a professor – I’ve learned all this CS, what a joy it is to share with hungry minds!

What are things that you or your university/company do to attract Hispanic students/applicants? What do you recommend they do more of?

Dr. Garcia This is the easiest one – I am passionate about changing education from a “fixed time, variable learning” model to a “fixed learning, variable time” one. If all educators gave students flexibility in project deadlines and multiple-chance exams, more students would be able to achieve an A. I have become a recent evangelist of the “A’s for All (as time and interest allow)” mantra – the “A” bar doesn’t change, but students are given more opportunities to reach that bar, including working after the semester ends. I encourage everyone to read the Everyone Should Get An A white paper and the “Grading for Equity” book, and join us in this revolution!

About Dr. Dan Garcia:


Dr. Dan Garcia (UC Berkeley MS 1995, PhD 2000) is a Teaching Professor in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department at UC Berkeley. Selected as an ACM Distinguished Educator in 2012 and ACM Distinguished Speaker in 2019, he has won all four of the department’s computer science teaching awards, and holds the record for the highest teaching effectiveness ratings in the history of several of the department’s courses.

He is a national leader in the “CSforALL” and “A’s for All (as time and interest allow)” movements, bringing engaging computer science to students normally underrepresented in the field, and supporting them to achieve proficiency. Thanks to four National Science Foundation grants, the “Beauty and Joy of Computing (BJC)” non-majors course he co-developed has been shared with over 1,000 high school teachers! He is delighted to regularly have more than 50% female enrollment in BJC, with a high mark of 63% in the Spring of 2018, shattering the record at UC Berkeley for an intro computing course, and is among the highest in the nation! He is humbled by the national exposure he and the course have received in the New York Times, PBS NewsHour, NPR’s All Things Considered, USA Today, and the front pages of the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle.

You can read Dr. Garcia’s full bio here.