Q&A with Derek Schuurman, Computer Science Professor, Ancaster, Ont.
I teach students how computers work, how to program them, and how they ought to be used responsibly.
Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, "The Questions" in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
DS: I am a professor, which means that I am both a teacher and a learner. As a teacher, I teach students how computers work, how to program them, and how they ought to be used responsibly. As a learner, I research topics in computing. Specifically, I study the area of computer vision which tries to find ways robots and computers can be made more useful by being able to recognize objects in their surrounding environment.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
DS: I have always had a strong interest in computers and electronics. My work and my hobbies are quite similar. As a teenager I delighted in playing with computers, radios, and electronics. A desire to learn more led me to study this in university. After a number of years working in industry, I returned to school and eventually became a professor of computer science. Teaching allows me share my delight in computer technology with others.
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
DS: Some of my most valuable learning experiences were as an undergraduate student at various co-op job placements. Each co-op job placement allowed me to experience a wide variety of different workplaces ranging from small companies to large corporations and government departments. In addition to technical knowledge, I also learned a great deal about different corporate cultures.
Comment: What is the best advice you've ever been given?
DS: Keep the main thing the main thing. So often it is easy to lose sight of what is important in the midst of all the busy-ness.
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
DS: I derive inspiration from many sources: from conversations with students and colleagues, from attending conferences, and from reading books, journals, and magazines.
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
DS: I begin most days by going to my downstairs office and booting-up my computer. Usually equipped with a coffee, I first scan my e-mail and then read a number of websites which include a variety technical news sites. In addition, I try to regularly visit a devotional website to begin my day. This approach works well since my devotions are then synchronized with the rituals that mark the start of my work day.
The rest of my work day is less structured and is composed largely of teaching classes, preparing lectures, meeting with colleagues or students, marking, reading, and pursuing research as time and opportunity allow.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
DS: My computer, of course! (More specifically, my laptop). My laptop runs some of my favourite software which includes Linux and various other nifty tools.
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
DS: Over the first few years I set about setting up a new computer science lab at Redeemer University College. This "project" took a number of years and involved many incremental improvements. The computer science lab has now become a nice place for students to work and gather.
Comment: How do you plan your work?
DS: For teaching, preparations can take a lot of time to plan. The preparations begin before the start of classes reviewing a number of candidate textbooks and selecting the one that appears best to adopt. Lectures are prepared and reviewed. Homework problems are selected to help the students practice the concepts that are taught. Planning my research usually begins with discussions or readings that lead to an idea for further study. Next, plans are made to perform a variety of experiments to verify ideas. Often this leads to refining ideas and iterating. Sometime this leads to new discoveries; other times it can lead to dead ends.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
DS: My interests connect my work with other aspects of my life. My interests in technology and in Christian education are themes that appear in other areas of my life. Working at a liberal arts university college immerses me in a multidisciplinary community that helps me to see the connections between different aspects of creation.