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Behind the scenes with Justin Wolford

Computer science instructor

Justin Wolford

A variety of educational and personal interests fill Justin Wolford’s days, so much so that he may casually mention at the end of a conversation that he has done work for NASA for nearly a decade.

By Tyler Hansen
Feb. 23, 2017

Justin Wolford took awhile to discover that teaching computer science was his desired profession. He earned his bachelor’s degree in communications from Lewis & Clark College, then enrolled at Oregon State to pursue a Ph.D. in computer science. Then in 2009, he landed an internship at NASA and soon realized that he liked teaching more than research, so he exited the CS program after earning his master’s.

Now he’s an instructor in the highly popular, online post-baccalaureate computer science program, offered by OSU’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and delivered online by Oregon State Ecampus. Justin has maintained his professional relationship with NASA over the years, doing contract work that allows NASA scientists to easily reference their notes in a database and analyze environments with potentially hazardous oxygen levels. 


Briefly describe your role as an Ecampus instructor.

“I teach a variety of computer science classes. However, the emphasis is on web and cloud technologies. This means that most of the content I create is out of date within months of making it because of the rapid pace of technology changes in this area. So I spend a larger percentage of my time making new material compared to other instructors who have topic areas that tend to be more stable.”

What interested you in teaching computer science?

“I always liked teaching. From middle school onward, I would volunteer as a tutor for subjects like math or AP physics. I also liked computers from an even younger age. I was comfortable using the command line interface of my dad’s computer before I even got into first grade.”

Your master’s studies focused on human-computer interaction. What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned about how people interact with technology?

“When I did my research, the biggest thing I learned is that gesture-based technology is a bit awkward. As cool as it looks to be grabbing and manipulating objects like in ‘Minority Report,’ it just isn’t that natural. I am excited to see what happens with VR (virtual reality) though. I have an Oculus Rift VR headset, and while it is certainly more of a novelty for now, I think there is a lot of potential there once people figure out the limitations.”

What do you like most about teaching computer science online?

“The flexibility. I have a wide variety of hobbies, not all of which work well in a typical 9-to-5 schedule. Teaching online lets me do work in the evening when I have other things I would like to do during the day or do some work on the weekend to free up time during the week to go to an event.”

What do you see as the primary benefits of online learning?

“The flexibility for students. If they have a family or a job they can schedule around it and they don’t need to physically move to a location to be near a university.”

“A lot of jobs are being replaced by computers and robots. I don’t think that is going to stop or even slow any time soon. … So getting the new generation ready for that upcoming employment environment is really important.”

How do you build a genuine connection with students who, in many cases, you’ll never meet in person?

“We have an event, the Computer Science Career Showcase, twice a year where students can fly into Portland to meet instructors as well as employers. This is the main opportunity to build connections with them. I get to meet them in person, get feedback on my classes and hear about their experience. But as the class sizes have grown larger, it has certainly become harder for me to build those connections with students and I would say that now it is typically up to the students. If they want to build a relationship, they do so by engaging in discussion on the message boards where there can be interesting discussions that everyone benefits from.”

Coding and computing is being taught at an increasingly younger grade level all around the world. Why is this global push so important?

“A lot of jobs are being replaced by computers and robots. I don’t think that is going to stop or even slow any time soon. As that happens, the number of jobs for programmers is going to continue to increase while the number of jobs that used to be stable jobs in areas like manufacturing – or in a few decades, driving – are going to go away. So getting the new generation ready for that upcoming employment environment is really important.”

How have you evolved as an educator since you began teaching classes online with Ecampus?

“I have learned a lot in terms of figuring out what the most important parts of online education are and how they differ from my experiences I had as an on-campus student. When I first started, I was making these long, 30- or 45-minute PowerPoint lectures that simply were not very effective. Now I have moved to a blend of a lot of text content along with shorter videos for those more challenging topics.”

What’s the best advice you can give to Ecampus students?

“That their learning is in their hands. The instructor does not have the benefit of being able to see when students look like they are engaged and understanding material or when they are totally lost. When you are confused, ask the question that addresses the root of the problem, not the symptom. Oftentimes there is a quick fix to a programming problem that is easy to find, but it misses the underlying, conceptual misunderstanding that led to the problem in the first place. It is really important to figure out when there is a concept that never made sense and get clarity on it sooner rather than later.”

What are your favorite activities outside of work?

“My hobbies tend to vary from year to year, but currently golf and shooting trap are my biggest interests.”

Computer scientists are often are into gaming. What’s the best video game you’ve ever played?

“ ‘Kerbal Space Program’ I think is my all-time favorite. You get to build spaceships starting from tiny rockets that go up a few thousand meters to interplanetary ships that take rovers and science labs to other planets. I learned more about orbital dynamics playing that game than I ever did from my physics classes or my time working at NASA.”

Wait, what? You worked for NASA?

“I applied to NASA’s Undergraduate Student Research Program when I was a post-bacc student at OSU. I was accepted to the Oxygen Hazard Analysis Group, and I was the last in a line of interns to work on replacing an old Access database (may they be forever banished from this world) with a Microsoft SQL Server Database.

“After that they wanted me to stay on and work full time, but I wanted to finish my master’s and was not too excited about living in the middle of the desert in Las Cruces, New Mexico. So they asked me to stay on as a contractor and do occasional work from home, which I still do. I am actually trying to get a quarter off to do some more serious work for them.”

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