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31 July 2020

Adrienne Decker, Tapia 2020 Academic Panels and Workshops Chair

Adrienne Decker Photo

Adrienne Decker is an Assistant Professor in Engineering Education at the University at Buffalo and the Tapia 2020 Academic Panels and Workshops Chair.  We spent a little time speaking with Adrienne about her work and career and why she volunteers for Tapia.

Tell me about your background and where you grew up.

I grew up in Buffalo NY. My mom was a stay at home mom and my father works for a bank.  From the time I was five I was a bowler; my parents ran the local youth bowling program for many years. I went to college for the first two years on scholarship money I accumulated through bowling.  In high school I was the co-editor of my high school yearbook for two years.  It had a major impact on my life.  The yearbook itself won awards for publication, journalism, layout and editing during my tenure.  Our faculty advisor, who was also my geometry teacher, Carolyn Maslona O’Rourke was an amazing teacher and the inspiration for my teaching career.  She became a lifetime friend.  In fact, my dissertation is dedicated to her. 

How did you become involved in Computer science?

Initially I was inspired to become a high school math teacher (like Mrs. Maslona).  I was accepted to the University at Buffalo and intended to major in a math for teaching program.  In order to earn the degree, I had to take CS1 and CS2.  My boyfriend was a computer science major and encouraged me to take the courses with him so I would know someone in the class and have someone to whom I could ask questions if needed.  I’d never even tried programming before.  In CS1, I encountered for the first time in my academic career, people I call the wizardsThe wizards are the people in classes who posture, show off, talk a lot about what they know, and behave like they know more than anyone else.  I was valedictorian of my high school class. No one had ever behaved like that towards me before. As my boyfriend told me, the wizards had no real depth of knowledge and would be gone by the next semester. He had a lot of experience programming. He was right. They were gone by the next semester. The courses and material had outstripped their knowledge.  I really had to work hard to understand programming. It took me multiple semesters before I became confident in programming even though I had earned A’s in all my CS classes.

Because I liked CS, I ended up switching from math for teaching to applied mathematics and my ambition became to teach at the college level.  At the end of my second year, I switched to pure Computer Science.  One day while paging through the course catalog, we had printed catalogs in those days, my boyfriend and I found that you could combine the requirements and receive a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree in four years.  He suggested we go for it and so we did. Turns out, we were the first people who ever went to the department to ask about it.  We completed all the requirements for both degrees in four years (it wasn’t actually a combined degree at that time).  They don’t offer the four-year option anymore.  I was the only female ever to graduate in four years with non-combined Bachelors and Masters degrees in CS from UB.

After that I spent a year teaching as an adjunct and ended up as full-time teaching track faculty. I realized that getting a PhD would open more doors for me in terms of opportunities (both for potential jobs and scholarly activity). I knew what I had a passion for with regards to computing, but that was computing education. At that time, it was rare to find someone in a computer science to support that type of work as a PhD. I got extremely lucky in that regard and found an advisor who was willing to support me and guide me in this endeavor. While he retired almost a decade ago, he delights in getting updates from me about my work and (pre-pandemic) we were meeting for lunch about once a month. I ended up working full time as a teaching faculty member and getting my PhD simultaneously, a path that is not for the faint of heart.

A number of years after completing my degree, I was recruited by RIT to their School of Interactive Games and Media because of the focus of work early in my career on how to use games, animations and media in introductory computer science.  I was hired into a tenure track role and switched the focus of my work away from majority teaching to majority computing education research.

In 2019, I was recruited back to the University at Buffalo to the newly formed Department of Engineering Education, of which computing education is an important part.  We are about to launch our new degree programs and bring in new students. It is a very exciting time to be part of the department.

Oh, and that boyfriend who really helped set me on this path. He was also my co-editor for the yearbook from high school, the prom king to my prom queen, my husband for over 18 years, and father to our two wonderful children. He is currently SVP and CIO of Independent Health, a local HMO in WNY.

What are the key projects you are working on today?

I am working on two funded collaborative projects right now.  The first is a collaboration between myself, Briana Morrison (University of Nebraska Omaha) and Lauren Margulieux (Georgia State University) focused on integrating subgoal labels throughout the introductory programming course (http://www.cs1subgoals.org/)  The second is a collaboration with Monica McGill (Knox College and CSEdResearch.org) which is investigating the long term impacts of K-12 computing education on students (https://csedresearch.org/). 

How did you become involved in the Tapia Conference?

I’d been involved in ACM SIGCSE for a long time, including being the technical symposium co-chair in 2015.  I learned about Tapia through various people in the SIGCSE community and had wanted to attend.  It was when I first attended that I heard they were looking for volunteers. I reached out last year and became the 2019 Chair of Academic Panels and Workshops.

I attended my first Tapia after a graduate student had come to me about working on a project.  He proposed a project on issues around queer people of color (QPOC) in video games.  He wanted to create a survey and interview people on how issues of representation of QPOC in that medium.  He put a poster together and submitted it to Tapia and it was accepted and he also received a student scholarship.  The work was a perfect fit for the Tapia Conference, and we knew this would be an ideal audience for the work.  I saw him last year at Tapia. He’s finishing up another Master’s degree at Georgia Tech.

What do you think some of the highlights of this year’s Tapia Program are?

I am so excited about the Tapia Conference program this year.  I am currently chair of the ACM SIGCSE board this year and we have had to move all our conferences online this year (and cancel the Technical Symposium the morning of the first keynote because the country was literally shutting down due to the COVID virus).  It has been such an interesting experience to see these events go virtual and I’m looking forward to see how the Tapia experience translates to being online.