Educating tech industry

Those who learn to help businesses through software have sometimes been calledengineers and occasionally architects. It took Greg Wilson to get them to thinkof themselves as carpenters. 

Wilson, adjunct professor in the department of computer science at theUniversity of Toronto, won ComputerWorld Canada’s IT Educator of the Yearcategory based on work that has taken him far beyond the confines of hiscampus. According to Karen Reid, a senior lecturer and associatechair in Wilson’s department who nominated himfor the award, Wilsonhas supervised more than 150 undergraduate students on close to 100 projects,half of them for clients such as Mozilla, IBM and even enterprises likeChapters/Indigo.

“The impact of Greg’s work on studentexperience is enormous,” she said in her submission.“Fifty per cent of our undergraduate students are involved in an independentproject course, most of which with external clients. As a result, ourdepartment of is held as an example of student involvement and service learning.”

Among Wilson’sinnovations is the Software Carpentry program, which teaches scientists aboutsoftware tools and practices that can improve their productivity, andstrengthen the claims they make about results. According to Reid, 25 undergradstook the three-week course last year, and others are now using the materials tocreate their own courses. “A PhD candidate in Psychology who took the course inJuly 2009 said that what she learned saved her six months on her currentproject and inspired a follow-on project,” Reid said.

Software Carpentry is not Wilson’s only foray into original coursedevelopment, however. He also pioneered the Undergraduate Capstone Open SourceProjects (UCOSP) program that brought together 90 students from 14 universitiesto work on 10 different initiatives. This fall, meanwhile, marked the firstcrop of students to take a Master of Science in Applied Computer Science, whichincorporates an eight-month industrial internship.

Wilson isn’t simply an academic, however, but a product developer in hisown right. DrProject, a portal-based system that includes a version controlrepository, a wiki and an issuetracking system, was developed by more than 50 undergraduate project studentsunder Wilson’ssupervision starting in 2002. It is now used in several schools across Canadaand in at least six U of T courses. Originally intended for students,instructors and researchers are now using DrProject as well.

Reid noted that while most people assume computer science departments remainoverwhelmingly male, Wilsonhas ensured every year 30 to 45 per cent of project students are women, while amap he keeps above his desk showing the birthplaces of his students, and thedistribution across all continents,helps provide an ethnic mix to his classes.

Said Reid: “Greg’s influence will be feltfor many years as the department continues to execute his strong vision in manyaspects of our education and research mission.”

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