Friday, October 7, 2011

Ada Lovelace Day: Thank You Nell Dale

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, and there was a call put out to write about someone who has made a difference in your life. After thinking it over, I decided that I want to write about someone who through a act of kindness, trust and a willingness to take a risk completely changed the course of my career.

I'm speaking of Nell Dale, who is well known to almost everyone in the ACM SIGCSE community and many people beyond it.

In the 1990s I was working full time as a computer science instructor at a wonderful community college - Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon. I was in charge of all aspects of the transfer program. The position was wonderful, exciting and stimulating, with significant responsibilities - in some ways a dream job.  I was developing all the transfer courses and teaching all of them, I was running around the state of Oregon creating articulation agreements with the Universities, I was doing....many things. I could see the direct results of my work on students' lives. I had an inkling that I was interested in research so I just started doing it by the seat of my pants. I certainly had no formal training in it at that time. It was exciting.

However, as not only the only woman in the department, but the only CS faculty member who had a formal computing background (I'm pretty sure) and the only one interested in research as well as in teaching, it was sometimes a bit lonely.

Along the way I heard about the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE) and I joined the listserv and conversations. It was wonderful to have others to exchange ideas with.

Somehow, through that channel Nell, who was on the computer science faculty at The University of Texas at Austin, learned of my existence. One day I received an invitation to be a member of a panel she was putting together for the next SIGCSE conference. I had no idea Nell was so well known and highly regarded or that she was right smack in the center of everything SIGCSE. I had no idea that SIGCSE was a conference loaded with people who I would eventually come to think of as family. All I knew was that I received this invitation from a complete stranger, asking if I'd like to be on a conference panel and I said Yes. The panel was accepted, and the next thing you know I went to San Jose and met Nell Dale in person shortly before we gave our presentation!

I was in the "wow wow wow" stage, and showing my newbieness by trying to get my hands on every free textbook that I could and stuff them into my exploding suitcase. During one of the conference lunches, Nell and I were talking and I said something about my interest in conducting research. Nell said: "You should come to Austin. The University of Texas at Austin has a computer science education research group". I didn't know much about UT and I knew nothing about Austin - or Texas for that matter. Both are now places very dear to my heart. During and after that lunch I thought about Nell's comment. Long story short, a few years later I picked up and went back to school for my doctorate, where Nell indeed was leading a wonderful group of people all interested in computer science education. Participating in that group was a wonderful experience, full of synergy, exciting ideas, passion. I had found a home. One thing led to another and I eventually created an interdisciplinary dissertation and coursework that spanned computer science, psychology, science education and math education. My education and the supportive relationships I formed in those almost-7 years were incredible.

None of this would have happened, the snowball would never have started rolling, if Nell hadn't reached out one day over a listserv to a complete stranger and asked if she wanted to join a panel. I have always remembered those acts of generosity to a newbie and have tried to emulate her actions in my own.

Thanks Nell.

No comments:

Post a Comment