Data science student investigates Arizona education system, reform through Steve Jobs Archive fellowship

Brinlee Kidd combines her creative and analytical skills to showcase findings in upcoming documentary

Two blonde women looking at each other.

Brinlee Kidd interviews her mother for her documentary project as part of her Steve Jobs Archive Fellowship. Courtesy photo


Arizona State University student Brinlee Kidd was one of nine people across the U.S. chosen for the inaugural Steve Jobs Archive (SJA) Fellowship, launched last year with the goal of allowing young people the ability to enhance their creative, professional and personal development.

The result of her fellowship, a documentary shining a light on the education system in her home state of Arizona, is tentatively scheduled for release this October. 

Headshot of Brinlee Kidd
Brinlee Kidd

Kidd, a junior in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences studying data science, is a Flinn Scholar and a student in Barrett, The Honors College. She had known for a long time that ASU was the school for her — and that improving education was a passion topic.

“Being born and raised in Arizona and having been educated in the public education system my whole life, I really wanted to stay close to that community because I was really passionate about education reform in general,” she said.

“My mom was a teacher in the really small rural district that I grew up in. Seeing her struggles — but also accomplishments — in that role really motivated me to go into education, technology and education reform. I thought that staying close to home at ASU would be a really good way for me to still be able to have a direct impact on this community.”

Last year, Kidd was invited to apply to the fellowship and became interested in its mission, founded on Steve Jobs’ belief that "if you give great tools to talented people, they will use them to make wonderful things." So she applied.

Now, she’s focused on finishing up the documentary, which has the potential of an early screening becoming available in August.

A passion for community impact

Coming into the fellowship, Kidd already had a long resume of research she’d been a part of in relation to Arizona and education. As part of the Luminosity Lab at ASU, she participated in the development of the Arizona Futures Simulator by collecting data on Arizona communities. 

“The goal of it was to build a total one-to-one simulation of Arizona. We wanted to build a tool for policymakers where they might be able to simulate some of the policies they were making and see how they affected the community in really complex ways,” Kidd said. 

“We started with the public education system and collecting all of the numerical data in order to give an accurate foundation for the simulation. Then we also built a system to be able to simulate how funding would affect those different numbers and affect student success.”

Besides her research with the Luminosity Lab, Kidd worked on her own projects, including one with a goal of what she described as turning the internet into a university through a free Chrome extension. 

“The extension allowed you to save articles, YouTube videos or anything that you visited online that was educational, and it would organize it into a visual hierarchy, she said. "I think we had over 30,000 people visit and use the site, which was really awesome.”

As she heads into her senior year, Kidd is adding the final touches to her documentary. She noted that many in the ASU community have supported her research. Fellow ASU student Benjamin Aguillar helped her film interviews and collect relevant data, and he is incorporating the film and research into his thesis project. Katy Gazda, an educator and ASU alum who died recently, was interviewed as a subject in the documentary. Kidd hopes the project will honor her memory and lifelong commitment to the public education system.

In the following Q&A, Kidd discusses her experience in the fellowship’s inaugural year and the impact her project has had on her career goals.

Note: Answers have been edited lightly for grammar and clarity.

Question: What kind of work are you involved in as part of the Steve Jobs Archive?

Answer: So the archive is focused on finding a cohort of young people, either in university or just coming out of the university system, working on independent projects. Their goal is to create a space for people to innovate in between tech and liberal arts.

The way that manifested for me is a documentary about the public education system in Arizona. I've always had a creative ambition when it comes to filmmaking and music. That's sort of always been my creative outlet. But at ASU I was a researcher and developer at the Luminosity Lab where I worked on education technologies, so I was really embedded in the community doing research for years. 

This opportunity allowed me to take some of my experience, the research I've been given and the network I had, to go out and continue interviewing and talking to people in the Arizona public education system. This time, I got to do it with a camera and a storyboard instead of just researching analytics and developing products. 

Q: Has there been a favorite story that you’ve come across in developing this documentary?

A: I'm kind of biased, but it was funny; I spent so many months going out to all of these different schools in Arizona trying to get the most rural and most urban perspectives — just really diverse across the board. I realized there was an emotion or feeling that was still lacking for me. I think this was after seven months of researching, data collection and storyboarding. I just felt like something was missing.

I kind of had to remember that the whole reason I started doing this was because of my mom and her time as a teacher, what she learned and what she accomplished in our community. My parents moved to Tennessee, and I last-minute booked this random flight one weekend. I just flew to Tennessee and surprised her. We sat down, and we did a six-hour interview where she just told me all about her time as a student teacher and why she went in to teach. All of the struggles and things she experienced that I never even knew, even though I grew up with her still teaching. ...

Being able to get a glimpse into not only her time as a teacher but also just as a person was a really profound thing for me. I’m super grateful for the film to be able to allow me to do that.

Q: How did your major in data science help you during your time in the fellowship program?

A: I think the combination of data science courses and my time in the lab, being able to apply the technical skills I was learning directly to projects helped a lot. One specific thing I can point to The College in particular are the courses I was able to take on data ethics. That's a part of the process that really fascinates me since my goal is to be technical and the course has technical skills. I really enjoyed those classes that talked about the philosophy of data collection, data usage and the possibilities in the future of how data can be collected, used and protected in ethical ways.

Q: What are your plans for the future? Are you going to continue tapping into the creative side of data science?

A: One thing I really love about the archive is that they give us a pretty open space and a lot of support and guidance along the way. ... With my background as a developer in research, I was afraid that I would make a film that was basically a research paper. I've kind of thrown myself into the deep end on how I can be an artist as well as create a feeling within the film. I would love to continue doing this in the future. However, I also have built products in the past, and I absolutely love that part of innovating and solving problems. 

I know that wherever I go in the future, I do want to sort of marry the things I've been working on with the archive into a broader vision. I'm not exactly sure how that's going to manifest yet, but at least for now I'm really focused on making the best film possible and then we'll kind of see what happens after that.

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