Office Hour: Thinking of Codes – Professor Andries (Andy) van Dam

About the Office Hour columnist: Shierly Mondianti is a Junior at Brown concentrating in Political Science. She is originally from Indonesia, Jakarta, but has spent a lot of time in Singapore, and Seattle. She enjoys watching national geographic and the history channel. In her spare time, she likes writing, hanging out with friends, and talking about anything and everything under the sun!

Professor of the week: Professor Andrie van Dam (Andy)
Computer Science Department
Written by: Shierly Mondianti

This week, I sat down with Professor Andy from the Computer Science department. For the Fall 2013 semester, he is teaching two undergraduate classes: Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science, and Introduction to Computer Graphics.

S: If you don’t mind me asking, how long have you been at Brown? I know that you help found the computer science program here. Where were you before Brown?

A: I came straight out of grad school in 1965. I didn’t finish my dissertation, and was commuting back to University of Pennsylvania to get my dissertation done. At that time, there was only one computer in an entire institution and most people only get to use the computer only once for 30 minutes.

S: What made you interested in computer science?

A: I was trained as an Electronic Engineer in college. I took the engineering sciences program which was new at the time. My specialty was in transistor circuits. I actually got an offer by Bell Labs, they said they would pay for my education but I did not want to be locked in. So I took up a fellowship in University of Pennsylvania for my graduate studies. During my time there, I took a course completely out of my area called: “digital programming,” and I fell in love. Despite the fact that we never were able to run our program because time was scarce and the computer was a commodity, we would write out the binary code on paper. It is unimaginable at this point. You can say I grew up in dinosaur’s age. Penn was the first university to have this graduate course program, and since I love it so much, I switched from hardcore engineering to the CIS program. I had the second graduate Computer Science degree in the country.

S: How did you know you wanted to teach?

A: Well that is a long story. I didn’t, I absolute had no plans to teach. My wife taught high school, and she would get the National Association Journal, a union journal for high school teachers. There was an article about a high school teacher called George Grossman at Bronx High School for Science, who was teaching a computer course. This was the time when I just graduated. I thought to myself, how is it possible to teach high school students computer science? Well, wait a minute, yeah I guess you can teach it at the high school level because you don’t really need complex math and science. So, I took a bunch of my wife’s student and taught them and this grew to be a summer program for high school students and their teachers. First in the world, in 1962, at Penn. We had this little computer that we used for students to run their program. I had a blast teaching this to the children and teachers, and I realize that I love teaching.

S: What is your favorite class to teach?

A: The undergraduate introductory course. I love working with beginners. Nowadays, since we have multiple intro courses, people can choose between CS17 or CS15. Mine attracts a lot of people who never programmed before. People starting CS15 have never programmed. I liked the idea of turning them on.

S: If there is one thing that you could say to a prospective student, what would it be? Do you have any tips for them?

A: Brown gives you a student centered education and is student driven. We provide a very nurturing environment (he proceeded to show me a list of names of all the students that he is going to meet for advising). We only have faculty members teaching in the CS department, with a couple of adjuncts. Typically intro courses are taught by the most senior faculty. Most departments in the nation are moving towards using adjuncts to teach intro courses. So, the odds of you encountering a scholar is far greater at Brown than say a rival institution such as Harvard. Brown is for the independent thinkers or people who have a sense of self, but it is also an important place for people who do not.

S: If you could be any season, which would it be and why?

A: I will answer what is my favorite season instead. It is Spring, and my second choice is Fall.

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