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Michelle Mock

Imagiverse Co-Founder / Educator
California, USA

What did you want to become when you were young?

I always wanted to become an actress!  As a child I was very interested in musical theater and used to "perform" musicals in the living room with my sister.  We loved musicals like Camelot, Carousel, Oklahoma, and our favorite: The Unsinkable Molly Brown.  After school and on weekends, we'd sometimes dress up in costumes and perform plays in the backyard with friends.  We'd get books of plays from the library and memorize the lines for "Little Women" or "Hansel and Gretel".  I also thought becoming a singer in a band would be a lot of fun too!

Where did you grow up?

I spent my younger years in Southern California, where I was born, but when I was 13 we moved to Spain.  I lived there until I was almost 21 and I feel like I put down my roots in Spain.  Living in Spain and going to school overseas was the best thing I could imagine ever happening to me. It impacted my life in so many ways!

How did that experience impact your life?

How do we know who we would have been if we had not had certain things happen in our lives?  Sometimes I think I would have been a very boring, "no life" kind of a person, if I had just gone on to the local high school and stayed in the place I had grown up before Spain.  But then, thanks to the Internet, I have started meeting up with all the kids from elementary school I grew up with.  They turned out to be pretty interesting, amazing people and most of them didn't go off to other countries.  So, who knows?  I grew up in a foreign country.  I learned to speak two additional languages.  I stayed there for two years (ages 18-20) after my family came back and I returned to California speaking with a Spanish accent and having adapted to Spanish culture.  It changed me.  Who knows who I would have become had I never gone?  The impact was tremendous.  I am who I am because of it.

What did you at first study?

When I was in high school, I didn't really have a definite plan for what I wanted to be.  I had become very interested in languages and travel.  I always enjoyed learning new things.  Instead of going directly to college, I took some classes at a secretarial school in Madrid, Spain.  I learned how to write business letters, continued learning French, and improved my typing.

I also took a class in clothing design.  Art was not one of my "strengths", but this particular class taught us how to make our own patterns for simple outfits we could sew ourselves.  It seemed like a practical thing to know, so I tried it.  It was difficult for me and I never got very good at sewing clothes... but I did experiment a lot!

Were those studies of any use in your future career(s)?

The classes I took in secretarial school, like all the classes I had taken in high school and even elementary school gave me the background that allowed me to pursue further learning.  I certainly use a lot of what I learned back then!  Even classes that were not related to any of my career paths were helpful because I learned something about me and they gave me a "taste" of something new.  It also made me appreciate the talents of people who could do things that were very difficult for me (like sewing and clothing design)!  The studies in secretarial school gave me the qualifications necessary for my early jobs and those jobs led to other opportunities.

What were your earliest jobs?

My first jobs were in various temporary clerical positions at NASA's Deep Space Network Tracking Stations in Madrid.  I was not able to get a permanent position with them because I was not a Spanish citizen.  However, I was able to substitute for many different people who were on vacation, medical leave or fill other temporary vacancies.  I worked as a secretary, supply clerk and receptionist.

How did you become a computer programmer?

I became a computer programmer by accident!  My family had returned to the United States two years earlier and my siblings were growing up.  My dad wanted me to come back and get reacquainted with them before they were out of the house on their own.  So, I came back for a visit and got a job working at the Jet Propulsion Lab as the secretary for the DSN System Support Group.  I would type documentation for the programmers and engineers, I would redraw flow charts for publication and I would keypunch the code written by the programmers.  I kept learning more and taking on more responsibility and one day it occurred to me, "I can do that!" And the rest was history...

It took awhile to get recognized as a programmer, because I started out as a secretary, learned to program on the job and wanted a promotion to "programmer".  I worked my way up and eventually I found the path and made it! I was determined and I never gave up trying.  I also had a supervisor who fought the battle to get me recognized as someone who could do the job. He had the toughest job.

What was it like being a programmer during the "beginnings" of personal computing?

Well, I was actually a programmer BEFORE the "beginnings" of personal computing!  When I first started, we were using mainframes like the IBM 360 and the UNIVAC 1108.  We were also programming Scientific Data Systems (SDS) 910s and 920s, which were used at the NASA tracking stations.  The SDS (later Xerox Data Systems) computers had from 4 to 16 K of memory.  It was real easy to use up all the available memory!  We programmed in FORTRAN or Assembly language.  Most of the time, we used Assembly language, because we were always looking to save bits here and there.  Computers were shared by many programmers and engineers.  You had to schedule your computer time in advance [usually no more than one hour at a time] and be ready to use your time in the most efficient ways possible.  Testing and debugging had to be thought through before getting on the computer.  You couldn't waste time!  People working on tasks with higher priority could bump you, so you had to work quickly and efficiently.  Usually, programs would be written down on coding sheets, submitted to keypunchers and then the punched cards would be loaded into the computer.  The program would then be transferred to magnetic tape or paper tape.  I am sure this sounds really odd today, but that was how it used to be in the 1970s.

Towards the end of the 70s, we got Modcomp mini-computers.  The Modcomps were pretty cool because we had one computer for our group.  About a dozen people had to share the computer and we had some people whom we jokingly called "Computer Hogs".  We had to schedule time and many people ended up working nights to get enough time, but it was easier to share with a small group of people.  We still used punch cards to get our programs and data into the computer quickly, but we now had removable "hard drives" we could store our programs on.  It was much faster.  We also had up to 64 K of memory so we could write HUGE programs!  Well, 64K was huge at that time!

After a contract change, at JPL, in 1978, I was hired by the Xerox Corporation.  Now THAT was the beginning of personal computing.  When I went to the interview, they showed me that every programmer (and secretary) had their own personal computer in their own private office!  They had email!  They printed out their programs on regular 8 ½" by 11" copy paper on large laser printers.  Yes, they had personal computers, email and Ethernet in 1978!!  They offered me a job and I took it!!

What was it like to work for NASA?  How many women were working in technical jobs at JPL then?

It was great!  I was working at JPL in the Deep Space Network (DSN).  I had a chance to be a small part of missions like the Pioneers, Mariners, Voyagers and Vikings.  At JPL, there were always trainings going on.  I managed to get on-the-job training in keypunching, flow charting, and programming languages (COBOL, FORTRAN, BASIC and assembly language).  The programmers and engineers were always willing to answer questions and I was always eager to take on new responsibilities, which lightened their workloads.  So, it was a win-win situation.  I kept learning and they were able to get more accomplished.

At the time, there were very few women in technical jobs at JPL.  In my department, in the early 1970s, the only women were secretaries.  By the mid 70s there were a handful of female programmers and engineers.  Some women were beginning to move into managerial positions.  During the 70s there were "affirmative action" plans that helped to increase the number of women and minorities in technical jobs.  By the end of the decade, there were more women in the field, but most of the women were recent college graduates with little experience, while many of the men I worked with had been working in the field for years and were gaining their Bachelors degrees in night school.  Of course, many people at JPL had Bachelors and higher level degrees, but not having a degree was not uncommon at the time.

The 70s was an era of big changes for women and minorities in the United States work force, particularly in technical fields.  Many, many women were getting recognition and in some companies, there were almost as many women as men in the technical jobs.

Why did you decide on a career change?

While I was working as a secretary at JPL, I was also going to school.  At some point, I don't really know when, I had decided to become a teacher.  I believe two things influenced that initial career plan.  When I was studying at the secretarial school in Spain, I helped some of the girls who were trying to learn English.  They told me that I helped them a lot and that I should be hired to teach them!  The compliments gave me a lot of confidence.  I also remember reading about Maria Montessori and her teaching methodology in a Psychology class.  I started reading more about her and decided, back in 1973, that I wanted to become a Montessori teacher.  So, I was working towards that goal when I "accidentally" became a computer programmer.

So, I guess I got sidetracked from my career path.  After I had children, and started volunteering in their Montessori Preschool classroom, I went back to my initial career goal and became a teacher.

What do you get from being a teacher?

I learn a LOT from my students!  My goal is to expose my students to learning opportunities and inspire them to learn more on their own.  If I could, I would abolish tests and grades.  I believe that doing is the way you learn.  You need to make mistakes as you go because you learn from those mistakes.  I am constantly rethinking my lesson plans and adapting them on the fly.  I look for teachable moments and capitalize on those times when kids want to learn something that might not be part of my planned lesson.  Unfortunately, in the education system in which we live, tests and grades are part of the package. So for now it looks like students are stuck with taking tests and teachers are stuck with creating and grading them!!  Homework though... that's another thing.  I think it is important that kids go home from school wanting to learn and wanting to do "homework".  Learning doesn't end when you leave school.  There's always something new you can learn and learning can be fun!

But what do I get from being a teacher?  A sense of accomplishment.  When I sit back and observe the kids and see how much they are learning, I feel that I must be doing something right.  When they come back and thank me, years later, for something I taught them that really helped them, I feel very proud.  However, more than anything, I am learning from them.  They surprise me every day and make me feel very lucky to be part of their lives and have them as part of mine.

What do you think your students get from attending your classes?

I do not know what they are getting from my classes.  I hope they are being inspired to learn even if it is not for a "grade".  I hope they are getting validation that they are valuable human beings with great gifts to give to the world.  I want them to believe in themselves and I want them to learn for themselves, not because they are given an assignment.  There are all kinds of students, with all kinds of different goals and needs.  I hope I give each of them something that is a positive contribution to their lives.

What are some of your hobbies?

Oh my!  I have many hobbies.  Most of the time I find a hobby that occupies all of my "free time".  I do it for a year or two and then find something else to try.  I love trying new things!!  Some of my hobbies over the past two decades have been: ceramics, stitchery, miniatures, reading, porcelain doll making, Jazzercise, taking classes, theater make-up artist and set building, and all kinds of different craft projects.  Some hobbies I keep going back to, others I enjoy for the time and then moved on.  Right now, I suppose you could say my "hobby" is working at Disneyland.  Even though it is technically called "work" I have so much fun it is more like a hobby!!

Why did you decide to create Imagiverse?

I had been using NASA interviews, chats and Q&A with my students and in March of 2000, I was invited to go to Washington D.C. and speak (briefly) before the Glenn Commission.  I was part of a group of three who represented NASA and we had about 15 minutes total to tell the Commission what NASA was doing and I was there to tell them how it impacted my students.  I came with a stack of quotes from my students who had expressed why they liked reading the interviews and chatting with NASA experts.  I got about 4 minutes to talk but those quotes continue to be my inspiration.

In March of 2000, I also began working with a group of NASA volunteers from all over the world.  I was interested in expanding the use of the Internet with my students.  Several of the people I was working with had similar thoughts and as we brainstormed, we came up with the idea of starting an educational website of our own and see where it would go.  We put together our creative talents and the idea for Imagiverse was born.

Do you do any public speaking?  Did you always enjoy giving presentations (or were they "nerve-wracking")?

Yes, I do some public speaking... now.  No, I did not always enjoy public speaking.  It would make me a wreck to talk even to a small group of people.  For example, doing oral presentations in high school or college classes or talking to a group of parents as a teacher at "Back to School Night" were very difficult for me.  I would take a deep breath and try not to be nervous, but my palms would sweat and I could hear the shakiness in my voice.  Of course that made me even more nervous!

Sometimes you just have to get out of your comfort zone and do something, even if it terrifies you when you think about it.  I got past the nervousness when I was invited by someone at NASA to go to Washington, D.C., and speak to the Glenn Commission.  I had NEVER spoken before a large group, but there was no way I could say "no" to the chance of meeting John Glenn!!!  So, I found myself so far out of my comfort zone, it didn't matter!  I was passionate about how beneficial those chats had been for my students, so it was EASY to talk about it.  I was given only about 3 or 4 minutes to speak, and I was not able to prepare a "speech", so I got up and spoke from the heart.  I wasn't nervous one bit!

Since then, I can talk to any size group and it doesn't make me nervous.  I don't give many presentations, but I speak in public almost every day as part of my job at Disneyland.  I found that I really enjoy public speaking now!  Who would have thought?

Why is continued education important?

There is so much to learn! I think it is important to keep growing intellectually.  If we sit back and stop learning, the rest of the world will pass us by.  In virtually every field, it is not enough to get a degree.  You have to keep reading and learning to keep up.  It doesn't really matter if you are continuing towards a higher degree or just taking classes or reading about things that interest you.  Continuing education in any form is important.

What advice do you have for students?

Believe in yourself.  Never give up.  Always strive to be the best YOU can be.  Everyone has his or her own gifts to give to this world.  Be yourself and always remember how much YOU add.  Remember that a single individual can change the world.  Try to understand the point of view of others and try to imagine what life is like from their perspective.  In a letter to Walt Disney, dated October 4, 1966, Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote:

"[It is] my firm belief that people must use every possible channel open to them to develop the kind of mutual understanding that is an obvious prerequisite to a goal of permanent peace."

Think about it.

Send your questions about Imagiverse, teaching, computer programming, Disneyland, and a myriad of other things to: Imagiverse - Ask The Expert

Michelle's Biography
Her Interview from 1973

- 25 January 2003


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Last Updated:
16 March 2003

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