Jennifer Parham-Mocello was certain at the young age of 5-years old that she wanted to be a math teacher just like her aunt. She would line her stuffed animals up on her bed and use the blackboard in her room to teach them addition and subtraction.
She even knew she wanted to go to Appalachian State, in Boone, North Carolina, the alma mater of her aunt and uncle. Since her uncle was a former football player there, she grew up going to football games with her family, so she knew already she loved the campus and the location near the mountains.
When it came time for college she followed her plan, never even applying anywhere else. But a few things happened along the way.
The first was a class in computer science; and her teacher who noticed she was excelling, and consequently took her aside to tell her she should switch her major to computer science.
“I think the reason I was good at it is because I liked it. I had fun. It was the logic and algebraic thinking that I used in math that I got to actually apply in computer science,” she says, describing how she’d stay home on a Friday night trying to debug a program while her friends kept asking her to go out. “The exciting part is trying to solve the problem. I've always loved solving problems,” she says.
Although she really enjoyed a computer science internship her sophomore year in New Hampshire, it was also where she learned to enjoy snowboarding. So, in a move that worried her parents, she took half a year off to be a ski bum in Colorado.
“They said, ‘You’ll never go back to school.’ What they couldn’t imagine is that I’d go back for forever and a day!” Parham-Mocello says with a laugh.
Trying to make a living working part-time at restaurants convinced her she needed to go back to school. When she completed her degree, and tried her hand at teaching to make ends meet, she discovered she had some burning questions that she wanted to answer. It’s what led her to get a Ph.D. to study how people think and solve problems in computer science.
“I think you can deliver better education if you understand how people in the classroom are thinking. If you don’t understand that, how are you going to tap into the different ways to deliver your material and get it across to a broad audience?” she says.
Parham-Mocello particularly wants to help those students who are on the fence about whether they should stay in computer science or not. Being an outdoorsy, non-gamer type, she didn’t always feel like she fit the computer science mold, but had some great mentors that helped her stick with it.
And her approach to teaching has changed a lot since her kindergarten days when she lectured to a captive audience. “My philosophy is to be adaptable, fun, and interactive. I know that sounds really kooky, but you have to know your audience,” she says explaining that she sees herself more as a facilitator of learning rather than an instructor.
“I enjoy what I do and I enjoy the students. I want them to surpass me. Isn’t that our goal even as a parent? You want them to go forth and be bigger and better than you ever were,” she says.
—By Rachel Robertson