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By Gerry Boyle '78
Yes, things have changed since those not-so-long-ago days when Colby students had to learn UNIX operating system to use the College computer. But some things about computer science remain as relevant now as they were when Skrien first came to Colby. He is one of them.
A graduate of St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Skrien arrived at Colby fresh out of graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle. At that time Microsoft was just a gleam in Bill Gates's eye; in graduate school Skrien took just one course in computer science. He taught statistics and mathematics at Colby, sat in on a few computer science classes and then spent his pre-tenure sabbatical year earning his master's degree in computer science. He's been teaching computer science to liberal arts students ever since.
Bearded and soft-spoken, Skrien is like a rock in the middle of a rushing stream. And as everyone knows, the computer world never stops rushing. "Three years from now, half of what you know will be irrelevant," he said. "The way we try to do it is try to avoid teaching that half that's going to be irrelevant."
For most upper-level computer science courses that means teaching what Skrien calls "the foundational stuff"sorting algorithms, knowing the advantages and disadvantages of each one. Applying that knowledge to extensive programming projects. "We think of our computer science major as teaching problem solving," he said.
How to do that? The old-fashioned way.
Skrien stands in front of the classroom and lectures. In the age of the silicon chip, he goes through boxes of chalk. He continually asks for feedback from students, trying to change the way students consider problems. "When I'm writing my lectures, I'm trying to think to myself, 'What does their intuition tell them is obvious?' Their intuition will give them the wrong answer. It's getting them to develop new instincts."
That long view of learning wasn't lost on his students.
Charles Herrera '87 and his wife, Tammy Parker Herrera '89, both managers in Silicon Valley computer firms, had their first exposure to computer science with Skrien. "If I hadn't been so encouraged by him early on, I might have given up on computers," said Charles Herrera.
That encouragement is spread around. Skrien says there is no such thing as a dumb question in his classes. "It's an indication to me that I didn't present something very well," he said. "I go over it again."
So Skrien and his colleagues answer questions in class. After class. During office hours. Via e-mail. "They answer [questions] so diligently that I wonder how they have time to do anything else," said Joshua Ladieu '02.
But there was one question Skrien couldn't reply to. So two years ago, he went searching for the answer.
He applied for a sabbatical year and took a part-time job with Digital Equipment Corp. in Nashua, N.H. Skrien worked in "a cube farm" as a software engineer. He liked the job so much that he went full time and changed his sabbatical to a leave of absence.
But the year in private industry taught him he belongs in a classroom. "During the time I was at DEC, every time I was learning something, I was thinking, how can I teach this to my students?"
So he returned to Colby, better able to answer students' questions about the big world of the computer industry. "I would say, 'I have no idea,'" Skrien said. "Now I can say, 'I have no idea except this one situation. I can give you an example.'"
Though many of his students have gone on to careers in the computer industry, and the two-year-old Computer Science Department continues to grow (10 majors this year, compared to just one independent major in 1996), Skrien's teaching remains more foundational than vocational. And for Skrien it remains its own reward. "One thing that makes it worthwhile is at the end of a class . . . and they've been telling me things; I've been telling them things. Maybe we haven't even covered what I was planning to cover. We've gone off on tangents but we've gone off on important, useful tangents, and I feel it's been a very productive day and the students have learned a lot. That's what is important to me."
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College Colby Magazine 4181
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