Alumni Corner: Daniel Orban talks about his work with CreateMPLS

What sparked your interest in computer science?

When I was in seventh grade back in the 90s, there was this email program called CC mail.  This was before regular email. I was in Germany at the time.  My dad was in the Air Force, and we were going to move back to the United States. I wanted to keep talking to my friends, so I found out that there was an experimental program that might work for my Dad’s Macintosh. Fortunately, we were able to connect via modem through the land system. At the time, this was the cutting edge of the internet.  I thought, “Oh that's pretty cool. I can communicate with my friends in Germany when I move to Oklahoma.” When I moved to Oklahoma it turned out that it was hard to make friends, so I ended up spending a lot of time teaching myself computer programming.  I started with BASIC then moved on to Pascal and C++. I found it intriguing and fun.

How did you know you wanted to pursue an entrepreneurial career in computer science? What was the experience like starting your own company?

I'm actually working with multiple companies right now - I teach at the University of Minnesota as well as CreateMPLS. I also do some consulting work on the side. After I graduated from my undergraduate program, I spent some time in the industry working for Dell and Accenture.  I also worked as a contractor. Eventually, I found myself at Open Access Technology International (OATI) in Minneapolis.  I moved around often. Sometimes I would go explore Europe or bike across the country.  Occasionally, I would focus on a new research interest. Over the years I have tried to start my own company with my wife.  They have often failed, so that's been an interesting work in progress.

After my industry career, I ended up in academia.  I always thought that was something worth doing. I went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota. During COVID, I had a professional setback, but that allowed me to explore the area of nonprofits. I was at my daughter's school, which is an inner-city private school in the Phillips neighborhood, and the CEO of the company CreateMPLS said, “Hey, you know what you’re doing, and you have a Ph.D. in computer science. We could use your help here to build curriculum.” I told him to sign me up, and we started working together.

Tell us about CreateMPLS.

CreateMPLS is a nonprofit that teaches a STEM curriculum to inner-city public and private schools. Our goal is to reach underrepresented students, and teach them the skills needed to succeed in the technological disciplines. Many of our students live in neighborhoods that don't typically have resources for STEM based curriculum. For example, I live in East Phillips.  This area is very diverse, but also quite poor. CreateMPLS goes out to multiple parts of Minneapolis and other locations around the Twin Cities. We teach technology skills by traveling to the school itself, which removes barriers for students to obtain high-quality education. We also are involved in extracurricular activities including Technovaiton, First Lego League, and First Robotics. We teach robotics, programming, 3D design, 3D printing, electronics, virtual reality, and computer graphics. I have a graphics background, so it has been fun to introduce these concepts in the curriculum.

We have many offerings and they're becoming more robust as technology improves. Fortunately, we have industry sponsors that provide the resources and materials that we need to teach the students. We also have some wonderful teachers.  Occasionally, I teach at the schools.  This allows us to test out new courses.  Sometimes the courses need many modifications and iterations before they are robust.  The failures enable us to improve the curriculum.

My role involves curriculum research and development for the company. I came up with a computer science topic and interactive lessons that teach the concept.  Then I try the course out on a group of students.  If it works, I’ll teach the teachers how to run with it. I try to make the ideas as accessible as possible so people who aren’t familiar with computer science can teach it well.

What's your favorite thing about your job?

I’ve spent a lot of time in the tech industry and a lot of time teaching. I have taught at the high school, elementary, and university levels, and I consult on the side, teaching industry professionals. I like coming up with new creative ideas.  For example, it is engaging to use drones to teach electronics and programming to students. I enjoy merging interests with learning.  It is exciting to come up with new creative ideas that might be useful for teaching really hard concepts.  Students can conceptually understand them and use them in real life.

The second thing I like is being surprised by students. Last year, while teaching a 3D design course at a high school through CreateMPLS, one student found an old bicycle in the trash and turned it into a generator. This blew my mind.  I didn't know how to do that, and I looked on in shock and surprise. He did his own research and he enjoyed building it with his family. He figured out the gear ratios and how to use mechanical energy to generate electricity. Many of these students don't have resources, but with encouragement, they can explore. Creativity is what I enjoy the most about working with CreateMPLS.

What impact does your company have on the public/clients?

Schools are struggling right now with the post-pandemic aftereffects. It’s hard to find expertise in computer science in the education system, and if someone has that expertise, they can get a different job that pays much more. It’s hard to find teachers who know about programming and who are in STEM fields. These schools also struggle with classroom management issues and other family complications. CreateMPLS allows us to bring STEM expertise to schools without a high overhead. Students don’t have to worry about travel, which is good because transportation tends to be challenging. CreateMPLs removes many of these barriers to a STEM curriculum by providing the expertise and the classroom management experience.

CreateMPLs focuses on high-quality education. The overall impact is that students have an opportunity to learn from role models and good teachers.

What are your next steps for the company?

One thing we've recently started is a summer internship program.  We find students who have excelled and offer internship opportunities to work with CreateMPLS.  We have them work on projects relevant to the tech industry. We pair students with industry professionals, who give talks and mentor the students. This experience trains students so they can strengthen their resume to get a job or to attend the university of their choice.

We also are continuing to grow and build team-based opportunities. For example, we help mentor students completing Technovation projects.  Technovation is a program opportunity for girls in high school and junior high school to use technology to build a project.  We also mentor students in robotics leagues, which is both fun and challenging.  This builds teamwork, innovation, and understanding of the engineering processes. We can continue to grow in helping meet the needs of the employees and teachers. We need to build and train our teachers to teach difficult concepts.

What is your advice for computer science students?

Don’t forget that we are human.  In today's world, we focus on automation, experience tech addiction, hear about layoffs, and build data centers. Many of these are expensive and have hidden social and environmental costs. CreateMPLS focuses on people. As people, we want to grow ourselves, but that doesn't mean that we need to use technology to do it. The question we should ask is, “What leads to human flourishing?” Focusing on the human aspects of reality is what this nonprofit is about.  We are trying to build a better society through equipping people. There is value in human flourishing.

Don’t be afraid of risks. I’ve personally failed many times, and it’s important to cast your bread on the water. Like the man in the arena, at least if we fail, we won't be counted with those who neither know victory nor defeat. The risk is worth it because the adventure is worth it. As a professor, I see many students who are afraid to fail. If you're being too careful, you may not accomplish what you should or want to do. We should embrace risk, for it’s the entrepreneurial spirit. In the nonprofit industry, people are worth it, even if we fail.  And hey, sometimes you learn things.

Computer science and truth can be an end in itself.  It is not always about economic prosperity. We should program because we love it. It’s fun to be creative and artistic even if it leads to nothing. Focus on your joy and love of programming because it is a method for studying the truth and exploring our world. Pursue your passion, do it for fun and for good.

Anything you would like to add/highlight in the article?

As a teacher for CreateMPLS, working for a non-profit can be difficult.  Yet, the endeavor is worth our time, experience, and expertise. Pursuing human flourishing is worth the challenge, and the return of investment is the good of society. Let’s do good and enjoy life together.  I’m a computer scientist and university professor who often stays on an Amish farm to explore another world with new experiences.  There's more to life than technology.  Let’s continue to learn and embrace our humanity as creatures of life and love.