Using Hard Data to Tell Human Stories

April 18, 2022

By Abe Loomis

At the Scratch Foundation, alumna Maria Janelli uses the research skills she gained at the Graduate Center to uncover the impact of creative coding for kids.

Maria Janelli (courtesy of Janelli)
Maria Janelli (courtesy of Janelli)

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in early 2020, Maria Janelli (Ph.D. ’19, Educational Psychology) found her expertise suddenly in high demand. 

“It was this rare moment in the history of the entire planet where everybody was trying to figure out how to transition to online learning,” she says. “Which is what I had been doing for 20 years.” 

The longtime educational technologist, who had been overseeing online teacher education programs at the American Museum of Natural History for nearly a decade, saw an opportunity. As place-based institutions, including her employer, cut costs to make up for lost revenue, Janelli opened a consultancy to help clients create and evaluate educational media.  

“I was lucky not to be laid off,” she says of her role at the museum, “but my hours and salary were reduced. So I started Baker Street Learning to supplement my income.”  

Her client roster grew quickly, and she was recently given the opportunity to join one of her clients full time. Now the director of evaluation and impact at the Scratch Foundation, Janelli studies the data behind Scratch, a massively popular free coding system for kids developed by the MIT Media Lab. The job lets Janelli pair her knowledge of technology and education with the research expertise she developed at the Graduate Center. Janelli analyzes trends in the software by combining rigorous analysis of hard data with the human realities the data represent. 

“Last year, for instance, we noticed that Scratch had stratospheric growth in India,” Janelli says. “But that’s just a number, right? We know it went up x percent in India. Why? What’s the story there? Or: The growth we’re seeing now is actually in Saudi Arabia, and it’s predominantly with girls using Scratch in Saudi Arabia. What’s the story there? Figuring that out is my job. And that’s what I think makes it cool: We know these things from the quantitative data. How do we gather the qualitative data that helps us fill in the blanks?” 

Janelli traces her passion for education to her childhood years, when she came to see learning as a way out of the low-income neighborhood in Union City, New Jersey, where she lived.  

“The value of getting a good education as a way up and out has always been important to me,” she says.  

As she began to consider career paths, Janelli knew she wanted to help others through education, but she also wasn’t eager to stand in front of a classroom.  

“I know myself well enough to know that’s not how I can give back,” she says with a laugh. “But behind the scenes paying it forward is certainly a way for me to do that. So that's what I focused my career on.” 

She started with an internship that turned into a job as a research assistant at the Center for Children and Technology (CCT), an arm of the nonprofit Education Development Center dedicated to exploring the roles that new technologies can play in the lives of young people. Inspired by her work there, she later produced online educational content for New York City’s celebrated public television station WNET. She went on to work as an educational technologist at Columbia University, then as the senior manager of online teacher education programs at the American Museum of Natural History. 

Janelli advises aspiring doctoral candidates in her field to find a network of support. Working with a good faculty mentor, she says, is especially important.  

“Choose an adviser,” Janelli says, “not a program. Find somebody you want to work with, somebody who genuinely wants to mentor you. My adviser was [Professor of Educational Psychology] Anastasiya Lipnevich, and she was a phenomenal mentor. From day one, I felt like she wanted me to succeed as much as I wanted to succeed. And that’s just such a shot of confidence. A Ph.D. is kind of designed to bring you to your breaking point and see if you get back up. And I never felt like that with her, and that was incredible.” 


Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing