Gaming for the Greater Good: “technology really enables the possibilities to help people”- USA

David Chesney, Computer Science Professor, Lecturer - USA
Apr 9

“I’ve always thought that a Reuben sandwich is a really odd combination of foods and tastes, but for some reason, they really taste great together,” says David Chesney. “Whenever we try new things at home by putting different things together (whether or not it is in the kitchen), we often say that we are ‘Searching for the new Reuben.’ I think that also applies to life.”

Chesney’s motto also applies to his work.  As a Computer Science professor and lecturer at the University of Michigan, Chesney pushes his students to use the latest technologies to build real-world solutions. “I don’t think that most students become interested in Computer Science because of the nuances of the programming languages,” says Chesney. “Students enjoy working in Computer Science because of the cool things that they can do to help people.  As an analogy, I am a woodworker by hobby.  I didn’t become interested in woodworking because of the nuances of my table saw.  I became interested because of the cool furniture that I could build. Programming languages are the tools, the apps and games are ‘the furniture.’”  Together, they have built some incredible furniture.

“The technology really enables the possibilities to help people,”  adds Chesney. Indeed. Here, David shares his thoughts on innovating, connecting  one-on-one with students, and the smartest person in his family.

Can you describe  how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

I think building social context into my classes wherever possible.  We are building games and apps for kids with cognitive and physical disabilities.  It’s an incredibly rich problem space, and best of all, the software projects have a chance of really helping people.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

Hopefully, my students graduate with a sense of social consciousness.  I don’t necessarily expect them to start their careers with hopes of saving the world, but then again …

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

In general, we are doing fine at The University of Michigan.  However, our local school districts are really suffering with keeping their computer labs up to speed.  At our local high school, many of the machines are still running Windows 95. This is a problem!

What is your region doing right to support education?

The president of the university, Mary Sue Coleman, is one of the brightest fiscal managers I have ever seen.  She has successfully guided our university through a very difficult economic time with only minor bumps and bruises.  Similarly, from a local public education viewpoint, our high school principal (Gavin Johnson) is doing a phenomenal job leading the school and creating new opportunities for students.  In addition, there are many teachers at the local high school (Matt Brady – Choir, and Michelle Holowicki – Government) who ask for and receive excellence from the students.  Students will rise to the occasion if given the opportunity and motivation to do so.

What conditions must change in your country/region to better support education?

We need to find a way to keep a recent (or recently obsolete) level of technology in the schools.  Also, there is a new version of the Computer Science Advanced Placement (AP) exam coming out in the next few years.  It is kind of “CS for the rest of us.”  I think that this is very much on the right track, in that it teaches parts of CS that everyone needs to know about.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

I don’t know that there is any single innovation.  That is, there is no ‘silver bullet’.  However, I think that it is important to stay current on the latest technology.  Then we can best leverage the appropriate technology, both for teaching our students, and for helping those in need.  Every semester, I ask my students “What technology are you using that I need to know about?”  Our students possess an awesome amount of collective knowledge.

What advice would you give a new teacher?

It would be advice that I have a hard time following because of the necessity of teaching large classes.  And that is – get to know the individual.  I love teaching, but I have found some of the most rewarding moments in one-on-one discussions with my students.  They really have some interesting stories to tell.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

There is more and more technology at a faster and faster pace.  In general, I think that it is helping the students. At least, I hope so.  Sometimes, though, I see it as adding to the distraction and pushing students away from deeper knowledge.  As an example, it is hard to gain a deep understanding of a topic if one is checking Facebook every five minutes.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

I think that the Lego Mindstorms is as close to a “perfect” toy as has ever been invented. It allows for creative play in design, fine motor skill development, and programming.  I have previously had multi-disciplinary teams using this platform, and they always have an absolute riot and learn a great deal.  Isn’t that a great way to gain an education?

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About David Chesney

Birthplace:  Detroit, Michigan
Current residence: Brighton, Michigan
Education:  Bachelor and Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering, Master of Science and PhD in Computer Science
Website I check every day: Kinda embarrassed to say, but it’s Facebook (my kids got me hooked)
Person who inspires me most: My wife, Jean.  I implicitly get credit for the brains in the family because of what I do for a living. But, I learned early on that my wife is the real intellectual spark in the household. I have never, ever beat her in a game of wit and wisdom (so we had to stop playing!)
Favorite childhood memory: Summers on the river in Northern Michigan.  It taught me to enjoy water and solitude, and I still deeply enjoy both.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): I had a personal goal of crossing an ocean on a boat for my 50th birthday. My oldest daughter and I are going to do it in early summer, 2012.
When was the last time you laughed? Why?: I laugh a lot. After 25 years of marriage, my wife Jean and I still share deep belly laughs, so that one of us needs to leave the room.
Favorite book: Recent favorites are Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow, and The Hunger Games.  Old favorites include The Stand and Watership Down.
Favorite music: I really like all kinds.  I purchase the yearly Grammy nominations CD, so that I have an idea of what kind of music is currently being played.  I also like listening to some of my old favorites with my kids (like Beatles 1). Listening to The Boss (Bruce Springsteen) always brings back great memories of my undergrad education, so I’d probably cast a vote with him.

More information on David Chesney’s work:

* http://forum.engin.umich.edu/2010/11/mobile-communications-technology-for.html
* http://www.eecs.umich.edu/cse/cs_connections/students.html
* http://ur.umich.edu/1011/Nov22_10/1804-faculty-find-storytelling

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