In a way, Justin Wolford completed the computer science postbaccalaureate degree before it was even conceived of at Oregon State University. It is especially appropriate, then, that he became one of the first faculty members to join the program.
Like the students who enroll in the Oregon State program, Wolford didn’t originally set out to be a computer scientist. He attended Lewis and Clark College to major in physics with the goal of becoming a patent lawyer.
He ran into a roadblock in calculus though, when he slept through an 8 a.m. exam and didn’t do well in the class. “I thought I was just bad at math. I absolutely loved high school math, and thought that college math was somehow different,” he said. “But really the problem was 8 a.m. math.”
Wolford switched majors and graduated with a degree in communications. His first job after graduation was doing data entry work. It wasn’t exciting to him, but he did like some of the logic needed to do the job. So he started thinking about pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering or electrical engineering, but finally decided to take computer science at Oregon State.
Since he already had a bachelor’s degree, he was taking undergraduate courses as a postbacc student. “I was doing it back in the day when no one really knew what it meant to be a postbacc student. Advisors sent me to the registrar, and the registrar sent me to advisors, and it was always someone else’s problem,” he said.
Twists and turns
In another twist to his career path, Professor Margaret Burnett took note of Wolford’s work in her human-computer interactions class. She suggested he apply for graduate school and ultimately, Wolford skipped the second bachelor’s degree, opting to earn a master’s in computer science instead.
After graduation, Wolford worked in industry, but found it wasn’t a good fit for him. By chance, he got a call from the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Oregon State to see if he was interested in teaching online computer science courses. Wolford jumped at the opportunity.
“I always knew I liked teaching,” he said. “I tutored physics forever, starting in high school and continuing on through college.” He also tutored math as a student at Oregon State.
As an instructor, Wolford found his calling. He particularly enjoyed making connections with individual students and helping them solve problems. “I spent a lot of time hanging out with students and figuring out how to chat with them,” he said.
Taking on a leadership role
As the program grew, Wolford’s role transitioned into course development and design. While he continues to teach a few classes, he spends most of his time working on ways to improve the student experience and making sure courses are kept up-to-date.
Looking for ways to make learning more impactful, he has found ways to integrate tools like Repl.it. This tool allows students to type code in a browser window instead of having to pull up Visual Studio or other code editors. “It takes out a significant step and makes it so students can finish watching a video lesson and immediately, click the code, run it, and see how it works,” he said.
He also standardized the courses in the postbacc program to streamline the users’ experience in each class, and improve learning outcomes. “Students know where to find the syllabus and know where their weekly outline will be for every single class so they don’t have to start a new class and spend time figuring out how the course is organized,” Wolford explained.
Justin Wolford has always loved flying, having grown up with a father who owned an air charter company in Hawaii and flew people between islands. "I don't actually remember a time when I didn't know how the controls of an airplane work," he said. Today, he enjoys flying his Lambada motor glider in Oregon.
Wolford also works on ways to automate some of the things instructors have to do — like calculating grades and creating communication channels —so they can spend more time with students and giving them meaningful feedback.
Wolford works closely the program instructors who “own” and develop the courses, as well as with OSU Ecampus to continuously improve and update the program’s offerings. This means not only making sure the content is current but also incorporating more complex technologies, developing animations, and figuring out code examples. It also means evaluating the courses — which includes student feedback — after they have been updated to make additional adjustments as needed.
NASA is calling
In addition to his job as an instructor, Wolford has been working for NASA since he was an intern. While a student, Wolford agreed to a one-term internship involved developing a database in NASA’s Oxygen Hazard Analysis group. It later turned out that the database had been worked on by a series on interns, and Wolford’s job was to launch the database.
Although NASA offered Wolford a full-time job, he ultimately decided that it wouldn’t be a good fit for him. He has, though, continued to work with NASA on making updates to the database for more than a decade.
At the end of the day, Wolford is happy he chose to continue in his role at Oregon State, working to fill the demand for well-trained and well-prepared computer scientists, and ensuring a good student experience. He also wants his students to achieve their best career path.
“Students will get the academic pieces and the theory they need from courses,” he said. “But I think the thing that’s the hardest to get is extensive programming experience.” Toward that end, he advises students work on personal projects or even re-do assignments to improve their code after they have gotten feedback.
“Following our videos and lectures will that will give students the toolbox they need,” he said. “But, it’s really up to them to program and actually get that experience to fill that toolbox.”
— By Gale Sumida