#DigiWomenKA: Professor Kay Margarethe Berkling

by Katharina Iyen

In a European comparison, Germany tends to be in the middle of the pack in digital rankings. Thinking outside the box and thinking beyond borders – coupled with intelligence and expertise – could take us further forward. The expertise, value system and mindset of pioneers like Professor Kay Margerete Berkling can help to find real solutions. In the #DigiWomenKA series, Katharina Iyen meets a Karlsruhe woman once a month to find out more about her and her commitment.

Kay Margarethe Berkling and I meet in my apartment in Ettlingen. The computer science professor at DHBW Karlsruhe, who was awarded the 2021 State Teaching Prize, currently lives in the Alb Valley. She arrives casually on the S-Bahn and immediately takes off her shoes in the hallway.

Kay Berkling met her current husband in Karlsruhe in 1996 during a trip around the world as part of her post-doc. They lived together in many places until they moved to the region from Puerto Rico in 2009. The New Yorker appreciates many things about Karlsruhe: “The combination of technology, sustainability and nature is what makes this area so beautiful for me.

A lot is also happening in Karlsruhe in terms of promoting women, girls and young talent

At the DHBW Karlsruhe Berkling particularly likes the collaboration with the dual students: “They are very practice-oriented and enrich the lectures with knowledge from industry and technical hobbies.” In other areas, the computer science professor still sees potential for development: “The networking of women in IT could be stronger and unfortunately there are still too few female professors in the STEM subjects.”

However, she sees a positive trend: “The situation is changing – we have just welcomed two new female professors for technical fields at the DHBW. There is also a noticeable increase in the number of women studying computer science.”

Photo: Kay Berkling

In Karlsruhe, she appreciates the work of strong players such as CyberForum e.V.: “Over the past few years, the association has succeeded in getting schoolchildren excited about computer science and making it a tangible normality. Many educational institutions are offering more technology clubs.” She sees two important levers in the digitalization of German schools: “More time and support for teachers from the Ministry of Education is the basis for a breakthrough forward. And, of course, fast internet everywhere.”

Technology does not need a better image, all genders need support

Kay Berkling is passionate about paving the way into IT for all genders. The interview atmosphere with the relaxed and modest-looking professor is relaxed and entertaining, full of practical solutions. “We don’t have to sell technology as sexy, it is sexy by itself! Computer science should be taught from the first grade of elementary school and interlinked with all subjects. It must be accessible to everyone as a matter of course, regardless of gender.”

Eliminating conscious and unconscious bias and the resulting discrimination in everyday life is essential for them. But the so-called “unconscious bias”, i.e. unconscious stereotypes, did not stop at her: “I once had a student in Puerto Rico. She wore very elaborate make-up, long painted fingernails and fashionable, brightly colored clothes. I wondered how she was going to find time to study computer science with all that styling. Two months later, she was gone – because she was too good for our university and continued her studies at M.I.T.”

Photo: Unsplash.com/Radowannakif Rehan

Influenced by Janis Joplin and chip technology

Berkling’s parents were Germans who emigrated to America. She was born and grew up in New York – at the time of Woodstock, in the era of Janis Joplin: “The hippie movement shaped me. My parents’ generation burned the brassieres. As a consequence, that meant that all genders were equal.” Her father was a physicist for chip technology at IBM and in research. “Although computers already existed, they didn’t have their own subject – that’s why computer scientists were still physicists back then,” explains the professor.

In the 1980s, she lived with her family in Standford, where her father did research into chip development at the university. “He was the first German at Standford University to do this. His cardboard designs hung on the lab wall, the individual parts represented the different metals and were brightly painted to distinguish them,” laughs Berkling. “It was all normal for me. I grew up taking technology for granted. Instead of pictures, we had chip models hanging on the wall at home.” Even as a child, she tried her hand at tinkering with technical devices such as machines and radios. At university, she enrolled in electrical engineering, but was afraid of electromagnetics: “I preferred to learn how to build chips and studied computer science.”

Photo: Unsplash.com/Robo Wunderkind

Digitalization opportunities should also be seized in the education sector

The professor is researching orthography acquisition and gamification. “We really need to master language, because everything is based on it,” she explains. Berkling develops games that turn language acquisition into an emotional experience for pupils. “The general perception is that playing is still the opposite of learning. But it is much more effective to practise through play. I experience what I’m learning in the game and combine knowledge with emotions. And games automatically provide a healthy error culture – based on the principle of trial and error. I need that for all innovative processes.”

The DHBW professor has defined three pillars for her teaching: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. For the researcher, autonomy means that teaching is personalized and individual, for example through gamification. Mastery means that you are allowed to learn something until you have mastered it. And Purpose, that you can do meaningful things and have a right of co-determination. “This also includes a certain respect for the ideas and knowledge of pupils and students,” explains Berkling.

She gives her DHBW students a lot of freedom. In project work, they choose which software they want to work with and what they want to program: “In the 900 hours provided, they should do something that they believe can make the world a better place. Laughing, she adds: “If I’m unlucky, I then have to familiarize myself with new software. Not the most comfortable way for me, but the results are often inspiring!”

The author of our blog, Katharina Iyen, studied German Literature and Philosophy in Karlsruhe and Heidelberg as well as Business Management – with a focus on Marketing & Media – in Heilbronn. She is the winner of the Scheffel Prize of the Upper Rhine Literary Society. Katharina works as a freelance conceptioner, copywriter and consultant in digital marketing. She gives workshops, lectures and creates content for digital products and services in agile teams. Katharina is the founder of the text agencyEdiCutin Karlsruhe and co-founder of the digital agency[BusinessRebels]in Heidelberg.She is an expert in theTink Tank coworking networkand can regularly be found on site.

Katharina Iyen on LinkedIn

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Cover photo: Unsplash.com/ThisisEngineering RaEng