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Erickson helps students over the walls of computer science

By Sarah Tuff Article published March 3, 2008

Erickson
Robert Erickson, senior lecturer in computer science, allows students in his Web design classes to create the course syllabus on the first day of class. (Photo: Sally McCay)

“The computer doesn’t care,” says Robert Erickson, shrugging and erasing a comma in the $8,750 he’s just written on a chalkboard in Dewey Hall’s Room 314.

With the subject at hand — writing Excel functions for income tax forms — it’s hard to imagine any of the 40-some people in this lecture hall caring much, either. This Computer Science 002 (Microsoft Office: Beyond the Basics) class happens to meet after lunch, and the gently falling snow outside adds an even more soporific effect to the room.

But as the senior lecturer and 2007 Kroepsch-Maurice Teaching Award winner trots back and forth from the board to a laptop to an overhead projector, the potentially tedious topic becomes surprisingly lively. Wearing a blue oxford shirt, olive-colored chinos and a long goatee, Erickson throws up his hands in a “eureka!” gesture as a student spits out the right answer. Another student straggles in 10 minutes late and looks up at the clock in puzzlement; Erickson quips, “Did you enter the Bermuda Triangle?”

And in Erickson’s world, the uses of Excel functions reach beyond the classroom, extending even into the dating scene. “If D14 equals 1, it means you’re single,” he explains, as he delves further into the tax spreadsheet. “So next time you’re downtown, you see someone you like, you walk up to them and say, ‘Hey, what’d you put in D14?’”

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If luck had played out a little differently, Erickson wouldn’t be teaching computer science at all. “I like the outdoors, actually,” he says. But after Erickson graduated from high school, he and his parents relocated to Manchester, Vt. from the heavily forested New Jersey Pine Barrens. Shortly after the move his mom won a free computer class, which Erickson took. “It was just fun,” he says. “It was great mental stimulation.”

Erickson then majored in computer information systems at Castleton State and in 1991 earned his master of science in management information systems at Clarkson University. After he initially avoided Burlington because it was “way too big of a city,” a teaching post at UVM was one of the 100-plus jobs for which he applied. But he got this one.

“I still have all my other rejection letters right here,” says Erickson proudly in his Votey Hall office, holding out a thick black binder.

This sense of humility — and sense of humor — is what sets Erickson apart for many of his students. “He’s just really animated, really charismatic; he makes a lot of jokes,” says senior Elizabeth Cameron. “But he’s also very open to questions and goes through the answers step by step.”

In addition to CS 002, Erickson teaches CS 008, Introduction to Web Design, and CS 195, Advanced Web Design, which he lets students help shape. “On the first day of CS 195 he let us design how the course would run,” says freshman Oliver Chase. “We were shocked and thought he was playing with us, but he stuck with our suggestions.”

Combining the rigid rules of computer language with creativity and flexibility extends to Erickson’s final projects, which he says are a source of amazement for him. “All semester long, I’m saying, ‘Do this, do this, do this, do this,’ but in the final project, I say, ‘Do whatever you want,’” he explains. “Then for me it’s like: ‘Oh, yes, they got it.’”

Tracking changes
When Erickson first arrived at UVM, he recalls with a laugh, he was teaching people how to use e-mail. “I was also one of the first to try to utilize a common network drive for the students and one of the first to have Web pages,” he says.

So does Erickson today ever feel outpaced by a new generation that’s grown up with computers? “There’s always been a perceived knowledge, and now more people have been exposed to more,” he says. “But nobody ever taught them the basic design principles.”

Going back to the basics of everything from indenting and spacing to functions and math can be frustrating to some students, Erickson says. “I say, ‘Trust me, there’s a way to get over this wall,’” he explains. “‘One thing at a time, and it’s not as bad as you think.’”

These lessons pay off in polished résumés, professional websites and more, say students. “Professor Erickson makes funny jokes, tells us about his day and connects his lectures to the real world,” says Lea Madori, a senior studio art major who has taken three classes with Erickson. “He really wants students to succeed in his class and in life.”

Every so often, Erickson will attend a computer-oriented conference to brush up on his skills. He also reads a lot, he says, including online articles and blogs to which students send him links. But Erickson also still devotes a good portion of his free time to the outdoors. His office is plastered with topographic maps, posters and photos of past excursions such as Yellowstone National Park and the Long Trail, which he hiked end-to-end in 1993. (Erickson says that both hiking the Long Trail and teaching computer science are “a pretty groovy adventure, each with exciting new things around the bend.”)

With his wife and two young daughters in tow, Erickson’s now more likely to be found on shorter hikes, or snowshoeing around the cabin he built in North Hyde Park. And then it’s back to making the world of machines a slightly more caring place. “Computers are OK,” says Erickson. “But what I really like doing is helping people.”