Rocky Mountain adventures in computer science

You might not realize it at first, but liberal arts and computer science go together like ones and zeroes. That is supposed to be a computer reference.

“In computer science, we develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills,” says Dr. Paul F. Hemler, professor of mathematics and computer science. “Computers are the stupidest devices in the world, so to get a computer to solve a problem you really have to think about all the possible details and come up with all possible issues that might arise.”

Paul HemlerDr. Hemler has returned to Hampden- Sydney after one year as a distinguished visiting professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The DVP program is designed to be a tool for the Academy to learn from more-typical higher education institutions, but Hemler firmly believes that he got more out of the program than he contributed.

“There were a couple of things that I wanted to get out of my year at the Air Force Academy. One was to have the opportunity to teach in a large computer science department. There were 20 faculty in that computer science department. We have two-and-a-half faculty teaching computer science here at Hampden-Sydney, and I’m one of them. I wanted to see how another department is run, so I could learn and bring back some ideas.”

“I also focused a lot of my time learning about ‘cyber’–cyber warfare, cyber threats, all cyber. It turns out that the Air Force Academy has cyber security as one of their missions. They have won many competitions in that field. I took some cyber classes and participated with the cyber team. So, that is some of what I am bringing back. I don’t see us having an entire concentration area in cyber, but I will be integrating the technical side of cyber into curriculum and programs at the Wilson Center for Leadership.”

As a computer scientist, Hemler is interested in reverse engineering, so dissecting the USAFA model, examining its parts, and implementing its best qualities in his own program is a natural process, for him.

Certainly the Air Force Academy is very different from Hampden-Sydney. Hemler notes, “A lot of the Air Force Academy courses have to be different from other higher education institutes; otherwise, there is no reason to have the Academy.”

For example, students at the Academy are measured by their GPA (grade point average), MPA (military point average), and APA (athletic point average). If a student is not doing his work or having trouble keeping up, faculty can order him or her to come in for a meeting or to get extra help. A large portion of the faculty is military personnel teaching at the Academy on a threeyear assignment. At the beginning of each class, the cadets stand at attention and one of them announces to the professor that they are ready to learn. Their focus and attention are required. Hemler was impressed by the Academy’s use of assessment and would like to see more of it at Hampden-Sydney. “Every course has goals; even each lecture has certain goals and we teach toward those goals. Then we test against those goals and we measure how well we did. We feed that information back around to improve the course. The Air Force is very goal driven: what is the mission; how are we going to achieve the mission; how well did we do the mission? They take assessment very seriously.”

Earning a position as a distinguished visiting professor at the Air Force Academy was a tremendous achievement for Hemler. He was vetted through applications and interviews before being offered the position during his sabbatical year.

Though he might miss taking departmental skiing expeditions in the Rocky Mountains or seeing cadets parachute through the skies above campus, he is happy to return to The Hill to bring the lessons he learned to our students and our institution.