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Women making history

Trendsetters and trailblazers – these are #UCIFierceFemales

In honor of Women’s History Month, UCI will profile one Anteater a week who embodies what it means to be “fierce.” Once reserved for soldiers and athletes, the term has been popularized by music stars Katy Perry, Beyonce and others and now describes enormous positive strength of all kinds. Each of the women we’re showcasing has leapt over a variety of obstacles to transform our campus community and the world.

The first is a student body president who overcame homelessness to earn her degree this June and who started a nonprofit to provide clean water, solar power and more to her impoverished birthplace. The second is a pioneering informatics professor who’s been dubbed one of the five most influential women in gamification for her work using play to better educate people. The third is UC’s top recycling manager, who survived October’s mass shooting in Las Vegas. And the fourth is a law school DACA recipient offering wise counsel to others as she challenges the White House in court. They’re just a few of UCI’s fiercest female students, faculty and staff worth saluting this March and all year. For information about resources for women on campus, view below.

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katie salen
Katie’s 5 favorite books
  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire
  • Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • War Music, by Christopher Logue
  • Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje

A respected pioneer in “gamification,” UCI informatics professor Katie Salen excels at making learning fun – or at least more engaging. She describes herself as “a designer, educator and gamer interested in the aesthetics of interactivity and the transformative potential of play.”

Originally focused on the visual aspects of game design, Salen holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts and is co-author of the widely influential Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. After tenured positions at the University of Texas at Austin, Parsons the New School for Design and, most recently, DePaul University, she joined the faculty of the Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences last September.

At UCI, Salen is breaking new ground as part of the Connected Learning Lab’s dynamic research team, which strives to create educational technologies in equitable, innovative and student-centered ways. Here, she discusses her career evolution and passion for “infusing learning with principles of game design and play.”

Katie SalenQ: You’ve been touted as one of the “top five women in gamification.” How does it feel to be a role model to a new generation of female game designers?
A: I’ve always taken my role as a woman in a male-dominated industry seriously and have worked over the years to help create opportunities for young women interested in the field. I have been lucky enough to carve my own path, and I want to help support others in finding their own way, whatever that might look like.

Q: Your educational background is in graphic design. How did you get into gaming?
A: Games are incredibly beautiful, self-descriptive systems; they have to be engaging because a player can just walk away at any point. I fell into games when I started bringing nondigital games into my interactive design classrooms to teach students how to design a really engaging system. I actually became a practicing game designer for a while, working with gameLab and Microsoft Research in the Xbox division, but I always kept one foot in academia.

Then, about 10 years ago, I started exploring the relationship between games and learning and launched Institute of Play, a nonprofit design studio focused on pioneering new models of learning and engagement. This became my lab, where I collaborated with others to develop and implement a research-based approach to infusing learning with principles of game design and play. Quest to Learn, a New York City public school organized around these ideas, was developed through the institute, and we created a rich array of youth- and educator-facing programs, tools and resources. After that, I launched a games and assessment lab in California and started Connected Camps – an online learning platform powered by youth Minecraft experts – with UCI informatics professor Mimi Ito and designer Tara Tiger Brown.

Q: Is that what brought you to UCI?
A: As a member of the Connected Learning Research Network, I had been collaborating for a long time with Mimi and with UCI School of Education Dean Richard Arum, and I was interested in being part of the Connected Learning Lab, which Mimi leads. I’ve been involved in the connected-learning community for more than a decade, and I wanted to continue what I had begun at Institute of Play: doing transformative, design-based work with young people and educators.

katie salen teaching

Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m trying to figure out how you develop really engaging experiences for young people that are centered on their interests. We can learn a lot from what games do – how they organize experiences for players and how they deal with feedback, challenges and problem-solving.

With Connected Camps, my focus has been on understanding the design dimensions of the products we offer – from how programs are structured to support the culture we’re cultivating online with youth to structures facilitating informal mentoring between our college counselors and the kids we serve. We run a blog that explores ways of making games and the internet a force for good in the lives of kids, and we’re working really hard to understand – from a business perspective – how to scale the platform in ways that make it accessible to all youth. We’re working at the intersection of industry, philanthropy and academia to find solutions.

Q: UCI has earned a reputation as a top “gaming” campus, in both academia and esports. How does this environment encourage innovation?
A: We have top-notch faculty who care about education and innovation and amazing students who are passionate about gaming and game development – and are located near some of the best game companies in the industry. It’s an environment absolutely supportive of new forms of games, design and play.

- Shani Murray and Tom Vasich

Top 5 women who inspire Lydia
  • Sojourner Truth
  • Mother Teresa
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Michelle Obama
  • My mama

Not a moment in the life of Lydia Natoolo, a fourth-year biological sciences major at UCI and humanitarian extraordinaire, has been meaningless. The 34-year-old is an aspiring doctor, president of the Associated Students of UCI, a Dalai Lama Scholar, a student ambassador for the Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, and the founder of Love a Community, a nonprofit that directs resources to hospitals in her home country, Uganda. But neither her extraordinary journey from poverty to higher education nor her role as a community leader has left her exhausted, though she admits: “I would be the happiest woman in the world if God could only grant me five more hours in my day.”

Lydia NatooloNatoolo was born in rural Uganda, the youngest of 28 siblings. Her Rwandan mother witnessed the beginnings of genocide in her homeland and escaped in the 1950s to Uganda, where she started a family. Natoolo’s father, a lawyer trained at Oxford University, instilled a fierce love of education in his children; he saw it as “the only way out of poverty.” Natoolo’s family, whom she calls “the village that supports me,” often went without electricity, food or any means of transportation, but this never stopped Natoolo from walking two hours to school.

“Growing up in a big family was a blessing,” she says. “No matter what we have gone through – and we did lack many necessities – we have always stayed close and encouraged each other.”

As a young woman, however, Natoolo saw her “village” struck by tragedy. She lost many siblings and other relatives to disease, and when she asked her parents why, they told her that they had no access to medicine or doctors. She resolved then to become a physician herself, to get the necessary medical training and, eventually, bring it back home.

Her family was behind her when Natoolo decided to move to America in 1999, first landing in Massachusetts, where she struggled as a new immigrant working toward an education. Seeking more opportunities, she relocated to California, where she attended two community colleges, suffered homelessness and became class valedictorian before transferring to UCI.

It was here that Natoolo launched her nonprofit, Love a Community, which has – among other successes – brought clean water, solar panels and a farming project to Atutur Hospital in Uganda, slashing its mortality rate by nearly 90 percent. Also under Love a Community, Natoolo started a business to teach textile production skills and give financial independence to single mothers battling HIV/AIDS, an enterprise she’s working on as one of UCI’s Dalai Lama Scholars this year.

After graduating this June, Natoolo hopes to begin medical school while continuing to “advocate for humanity.” Over the past 15 years, in addition to focusing on her education, she has lobbied Congress, spoken to the United Nations, and briefed senators in California and Massachusetts on local and global issues. In fact, Natoolo is minoring in political science to enable her to better help impoverished communities throughout her career.

“It is extremely challenging to balance my responsibilities, but by the end of the day, I am always glad to hear that someone’s life has been changed or saved in a hospital due to my nonprofit,” she says.

Each night before bed, Natoolo follows a tradition she started a decade ago to give her strength: She calls her No. 1 supporter, her mother.

“Even though most of my family is back in Africa, they understand my insane life and are always there for me,” Natoolo says. “Calling my mama reminds me that my commitments may be heavy, but the work I do to serve others – in Uganda and throughout the world – can give me the energy to continue this amazing journey.”

- Megan Cole


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