Demetrios Demopoulos: from Grad Student to Educator

Demetrios Demopoulos, Rice University MS CS alumnus

Demetrious Demopoulos joined an educational startup, Archimedean Schools, in 2002. He is now the Director for the Upper Conservatory.

The Archimedean Schools, in Miami, Florida, teach Greek, mathematics, philosophy, and the sciences, among other stimulating subject matter, to a coeducational, public school population of primarily Hispanic students at the lower end of America’s socio-economic scale. At the helm of the high school program is Rice University alumnus Demetrios Demopoulos (M.S. C.S. ‘03).

“We have a very unique core curriculum,” said Demopoulos, the Director of the Upper Conservatory. “It is quite rigid, the intent being to deliver to students a well-balanced, rigorous, mind-opening, and quality-rich education.”

In addition to humanities and science coursework, Greek language study is mandatory at Archimedean as are two mathematics courses each year. Archimedean’s founders felt that philosophy would complement mathematics well in order to successfully teach the “art of thinking” to its students.

“Wanting to prepare students for an interdisciplinary world, all Archimedean students are required to take courses that stimulate discourse and thought such as political and feminist philosophy alongside calculus and discrete mathematics. We have a 100% graduation rate, the majority of our students are first generation college students, and 100% get accepted to college. For us, this means over 95% of our students attend a four-year institution, not a community college, immediately after graduating from Archimedean,” he said.

Demopoulos credits his own educational opportunities for the success and satisfaction he’s found as a K-12 educator. He was wrapping up an undergraduate program and master’s degree in Computer Engineering and Informatics at the University of Patras when most of his U.S. graduate school applications were accepted.

He was unable to visit any of these schools, which made choosing one even more difficult. Demopoulos said, “In the 1990’s, there was no Skype and the Internet was not what it is today. There were few photos and no social media. My advisers had recommended Rice’s CS program for its small size and they spoke highly of Moshe Vardi, especially his work in Logic. But I was still undecided. Then came the phone call.

“I was sitting in my apartment one afternoon in Patras, Greece, when the phone rang. The caller introduced herself as Lydia Kavraki, a Computer Science professor, who had recently joined Rice. She was calling me, a young student overseas, and she must have stayed on the call for almost an hour, describing her experiences at Rice and contrasting the student life and academic opportunities I’d have in Greece versus the U.S.

“Rice was already one of my top choices, but that phone call made me realize I would find tremendous support at Rice. Dr. Kavraki was right, and I found Rice to be a welcoming, tight knit, and very personable community.”

Demopoulos took courses at Rice with both Vardi and Kavraki, and he worked as a teaching assistant (TA) for Vardi’s and Kavraki’s courses. It was the first time he had been presented with a teaching opportunity other than tutoring peers in mathematics, which began in middle school.

“I had enjoyed peer tutoring, but becoming a TA opened my eyes in new ways. I really enjoyed working beside and learning from the professors and seeing the flow of ideas and solutions between the students. The combination of logic, algorithms, and complexity had always excited me, even in Greece, but it was much more exciting to explain these concepts to others,” said Demopoulos.

Vardi, Demopoulos’ advisor, helped him secure a once-in-a-lifetime industry internship at Intel and Demopoulos said that experience was amazing. “Upon my return, Kavraki gave me another amazing opportunity: to actually co-teach the algorithms course alongside her. That was tremendously powerful. I knew I was hooked. I wanted to be an educator.”

Now at a crossroads, Demopoulos felt torn between industry, teaching, and continuing to pursue research. He sought advice from Vardi, other grad students, and also the career services team, who helped him identify his best career fits. “Then, just as I was considering my options, I discovered an opportunity to help start up a new and unique charter school in Miami,” he said.

Demopoulos got in contact with one of the founders, Dr. George Kafkoulis, a mathematics professor at Florida International University. They talked in depth about the ideas propelling the project. He learned that although several of the founders were Greek, they were driven to teach rigorous mathematics and philosophy to students in high need areas regardless of their cultural background. Here was a chance to make a difference.

“I’ve been at the Archimedean Schools since 2002, when I graduated from Rice,” he said. “I’ve taught mathematics in first through fifth grades and also in ninth through twelfth grades. Even though I’m now an administrator, I still teach one or two classes as a volunteer. Teaching is energizing and very consequential. In all honesty, I’m indebted to Vardi and Kavraki for the opportunity to discover this passion of mine through the opportunities they gave me to explore my interests at Rice.”

Based on his own academic background and his roles as both teacher and administrator in elementary and high schools, Demopoulos has a unique perspective on the importance of mathematics and computer science within the overall K-12 educational system.

“There are two major reasons to bring CS into the core of primary and secondary education. First, these are disciplines of great importance to all current industries. There is an enormous amount of data being generated and collected today, with a subsequent and critical need for people with knowledge of computer science (along with statistics and communications) who can analyze and present the stories this data reveals. Computer science is also an intriguing way to get young students interested in developing problem solving skills, an essential skill in any domain. While there has been substantial activity in including CS in the secondary (one example is the College Board’s AP program), and even primary, curricula, we still need to rally behind a nation-wide initiative to bring CS to all schools.

“On the other hand, mathematics has always been central to the education system, even if the type of the mathematics offered differs across classrooms. Some argue for the mathematical needs of humans as consumers (mainly quantitative literacy), while others are seeing more demand for the mathematical needs of humans as technology developers. I believe advancing civilization further will require more mathematics, not less.”

According to Demopoulos, advancing society involves rigorous and deep thinking. “Most of the applications we are seeing now require complex logic-based reasoning. Let students see the mathematics in use and not in trivial ways. Give them the opportunity to experience how advanced mathematics allow us to make connections, and to establish and use relationships that are not obvious. Let them see the mathematics inside AI, under drones, behind data mining.”

To develop these complex applications and systems, deep thinkers must practice sustaining concentration. Demopoulos said, “That mental discipline is unlike most of what we do these days. We receive a lot of fragmented bites of information, quick inputs that we give only a cursory glance to and discard or save rapidly. Such activities don’t help us learn mental discipline or the ability to formulate and test complex ideas. But studying advanced mathematics helps us learn how to approach situations with a formal, disciplined approach. We need this type of focused thinking and the power of formalism, in addition to the instant gratification which is a part of our current lifestyles. Some things – like deep thinking – are worth preserving.”

The challenge of encouraging K-12 students to embrace and enjoy mathematics, statistics, and computer science only adds to Demopoulos’ satisfaction with his work. He said he chose to become an educator because education is what allowed him to break through socio-economic barriers and it gives him the opportunity to positively impact future generations in the same way.

“The key to it all is learning. Teaching is a continuous outpouring, but the high points come in individual, discrete moments. Those high fives, hugs, and tears of joy make for a great day at work. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when what we do throughout the year culminates in these beautiful moments, those are good days.

“When I witness these ah-hah moments, when a student suddenly understands the world from a new perspective, realizes a new life skill, grasps a complex but fascinating concept in biology or mathematics, or even experiences personal growth and a new sense of pride, I am left deeply satisfied. That’s the essence that drives a passionate educator.”