Of Grace and Robots

Alumni Profile: Jim Boerkoel ’02

When you read the list of awards that Jim Boerkoel ’02 has received, or page through any of his published articles, it’s easy to feel, frankly, quite—well—stupid.

Try this one, for example: A year ago, Jim received the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation to fund five years of his research project entitled “Robust and Reliable Multiagent Scheduling Under Uncertainty.” (See what we mean?!)

Or this one: He’s the founder and “principle investigator” of the HEATlab (the Human Experience and Agent Teamwork Lab) at Harvey Mudd College, which if you google, you will find is just outside of Los Angeles and is the country’s most expensive liberal arts college. His HEATlab group of undergrad students work on a variety of robotic projects to “create new techniques for human-robot teaming,” to more flexibly coordinate and navigate interactions between humans and robots, especially in areas that need “explicit cooperation to be successful.” Hmm?

He’s the main instructor at the 829-student college of several courses entitled things like “Interaction Design,” “Artificial Intelligence” and “Algorithms,” and his research interests include automated planning and scheduling, multirobot coordination, human-robot interaction, and artificial intelligence (AI) education.

Recently Jim was intelligently quoted in Inc.’s online article on the implicit biases built into and coming out of artificial intelligence systems, with Microsoft’s 2016 racial-slur spouting chatbot dubbed “Tay” as the prime example: “I’d argue that it is at least as hard as trying to fix implicit biases within ourselves and society,” Boerkoel is quoted in the article. “While implicit bias training can help designers of technology attempt to keep biases in check, it is impossible to be truly blind to all of the ways a culture has shaped our views about gender, race, and religion.”


RVL…taught me that being a Christian is really about being a follower of Christ.

You can get all that from Harvey Mudd’s webpage on him, along with the fact that he graduated from Hope College summa cum laude, graduated with both his M.S. and Ph.D. in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of Michigan, and that he did postdoctoral work at MIT. But what you can’t find out from his webpage (besides that he is a husband, and a dad of a very cute two-year-old) is that in all of this research and degrees, Jim’s really all about his students, about teaching, about using his position as a teacher, as he says, “to advocate for the least of these” in his community, lessons he started to learn not only from his family and home church, but also from his 13 years of Holland Christian education.

He likes working at Harvey Mudd, he says, because when he was attending Hope College right after, and even during his Holland Christian years, he realized that “I wanted to teach at a small, liberal arts college where faculty can have a large impact on students’ lives.” And he likes it there, too, because Harvey Mudd typically draws underrepresented students, and connects them to STEM subjects, like his favorite, computer sciences, where he can make such subjects “accessible and approachable to all.” “A few years ago, we celebrated our first graduating class that had more women than men,” he says. And he values “the opportunity to use my voice as an ally to demand a society that is more equitable and just.”


He realizes that he was blessed from the start with his middle class Christian upbringing in Holland, Michigan, that he was “privileged to have attended a school that set me up for success in the future. While I worked hard throughout my career, I recognize that a large part of who I am is due to circumstances far outside my control—having a loving family and parents, attending a great school, and being part of a loving community.” And that therefore, from all that, he gets to go out and bless others. More through his teaching, he seems to emphasize, than even through his technology.

Most of his students at Harvey Mudd College graduate to work at big places like Google, Facebook, or Microsoft, or go on to graduate schools like Berkeley, MIT or Stanford. But before they leave his classroom, he works to challenge his students to “grapple with their purpose and the impact that they will have on society.” Or to wrestle with big questions like “What makes a robot a robot? What makes human interactions beautiful, effective, and meaningful? And perhaps in the process, what makes us who we are?”

His HC years are several layers of education ago, but he still resonates with the idea of grace, an idea not often seen in academia, but an idea Jim first absorbed here at Holland Christian. He likes to quote one of his mathematics colleagues, Francis Su, in his MAA Haimo Teaching Award speech, that “Your accomplishments are NOT what make you a worthy human being, and you learn this lesson when someone shows you GRACE: good things you didn’t earn or deserve, but are getting anyway.” He adds that this idea of grace “both resonates with the lessons I learned at HC, but is a good description of what I aspire for my own classroom.”

Some of his HCS teachers helped start him along those lines of grace-thinking and grace-giving, in particular his former HCHS physics teacher, Jim Peterson, who Jim Boerkoel says “inspired me with the grace with which he approached the art of teaching, and helped instill my love and passion for science.” His HCHS English teacher, Mark Hiskes “taught me to challenge understandings and develop my own interpretations of the world around me.” And then there was RVL, who “taught me that being a Christian is really about being a follower of Christ—which gave me the confidence to question some of the baggage that sometimes comes with various faith communities.”

“I love that I get to teach the next generation of tech leaders,” he adds. “I use my voice to advocate and challenge the fields of both technology and education to become more inclusive. I do my best to advocate for designing AI that is inclusive and challenges a system of oppression and privilege.”

And the research that he does? It is super smart, heady stuff. But on a basic level, it’s also computer-coded, uber-glorified, HC mom-driven carpool scheduling—just for robots. So that Amazon can have its effective automated warehouses, Uber can have safe autonomous drivers, we can park our cars more safely, or vacuum our floors more effectively, while also working other machines in our homes. So our lives can be easier, more efficient—leaving us more time to share Christ’s gifts with those around us. It’s pretty awesome to have a Christian HC grad behind those robotic endeavors, one filled with the idea of Christ’s grace, aiming to pour it out on the “least of these,” even if they are smarty-pants ones in technological academia—about to head all over the world, after being blessed by grace.

I use my voice to advocate and challenge the fields of both technology and education to become more inclusive. I do my best to advocate for designing AI that is inclusive and challenges a system of oppression and privilege.