Graduate Division announces Dr. Stephanie Couch as 2018 commencement keynote speaker

by Shawn Warner, Director of Professional Development
Tuesday, March 27, 2018 11:25 AM

Dr. Stephanie CouchUC Santa Barbara alum Dr. Stephanie Couch, who received her Ph.D. from the UCSB Gevirtz Graduate School of Education in 2012, will take the stage as the 2018 UCSB Graduate Division Commencement Keynote speaker on Sunday, June 17. “I value my time at UC Santa Barbara," she said. “And I also value the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education and everything it has offered me, and what it offers for every student who goes there, and those in community who come in contact with our graduates. UCSB is a phenomenal place.” 

As an administrative leader and strong advocate for educational innovation, Couch has spent nearly two decades of her career working to build better education access through technological opportunities for students from underrepresented communities throughout California. She chose UCSB for her doctoral studies because of the education program’s approach to interactional ethnography – an emphasis Couch felt would help her work as a Director of Statewide Initiatives at the School of Education at UC Davis in documenting the incredible gains made in educational access through technology.

“When I saw the power of what ethnography could offer in demonstrating the value of innovations, I fell in love with it,” she said. “I wouldn’t go anywhere else but UCSB to develop as an ethnographer -- particularly one that focuses on discourse and language use as well as actions. That ability to step back from what I think I know, to try to look at everything with fresh eyes, helps me not only in my own research, but with everything that I do today. UCSB was a life-changer.”

Couch recounted her experiences with a variety of technologies that allowed her to participate in classes at a distance. This gave Couch and a group of UCSB students an opportunity to work with faculty to explore issues in distance learning. Couch said faculty mentors like Dr. Judith Green, Richard Duran, Mike Gerber, and Danielle Harlow were willing to support the student group’s research into technological innovations in learning. “The faculty were just so phenomenal in supporting our effort,” she said. “It offered an opportunity to apply the inquiry-based approach of interactional ethnographers in ways that promoted learning beyond our regular coursework.”

Her determination to build better avenues toward educational success in California has deep roots in her own upbringing and experience as a young person. “I grew up in the Central Valley where many times I felt there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for advancement -- which is partly why I went away to college,” she said. At her local high school, Couch was one of two female students enrolled in architectural drafting courses. “I thought I wanted to be an architect,” she recalled. “But at the time, CAD drafting systems were coming out, and I didn’t want to go into a field where there wouldn’t be a job for me. I assumed the technology would take away jobs from the architects. From that experience, I know that kids may have uninformed views about where technology is going. I am now very conscious about making our kids see the opportunities that technology can create for their future.”

During her undergrad years, Couch decided to focus on her other interests, like politics and teaching young children. She worked in a kindergarten class in high school, and went on to qualify as a first grade teacher’s aide during her first year in community college. An internship as a political science major at UC Davis brought all her interests full circle. “When I got into the State Capitol and got to work on education policy, all of a sudden I got to put all the pieces together,” she said. “Our careers are like a jungle gym — at certain times, everything starts converging.”

Before accepting her current position as the Executive Director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, Couch served as Director of the Gateways East Bay STEM Network and founding Executive Director of CSU East Bay’s Institute for STEM Education. Couch made her mark on California’s STEM education system as one of the visionary founders of the statewide California STEM Learning Network (CSLNet), a non-profit network of educators and other community leaders working together to ensure all students have the skills to succeed in STEM careers and degrees. In 2016, Couch was inducted into the Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame, and was recognized by the San Francisco Business Times as one of the Most Influential Women in Bay Area Business.

At her current role at MIT, Couch oversees the development, strategic partnerships, and growth of the Lemelson-MIT Program’s prestigious invention awards and grants programs designed to inspire young people to pursue creative lives and careers through invention. Through her work to expand learning opportunities that teach high schoolers how to invent technological solutions to real world problems, like the InvenTeam grant initiative, she continues to work hard to move the dial forward on creating more access to STEM careers for underrepresented minorities. “I often tell young people that none of us get to where we are by ourselves -- other people help us get there,” she said.  “They need to network and not be afraid to come forward with their hopes, their dreams, and their questions. They need speak to the people who can help them get to their goals. Networking and setting high goals for oneself are two key ingredients for accomplishing great things and being the best we can be in this world.”