Dr. George B. Adams is a professor of practice in the Computer Science department. He was the recipient of the 2018 College of Science Outstanding Teacher Award, as well as the previous year’s award. We interviewed him to talk about his academic and professional career, why he believes he received the award, and his suggestions for students in the College of Science.
You received your Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering. What led you to choose this field of study?
I really thought Electrical Engineering seemed to be the wave of the future, particularly concerning computers. I was interested in understanding how they worked and how they were built.
I had been watching the space program as I grew up, and I thought that the technology involved there was really quite interesting, and there was a lot of computing involved.
The recent movie Hidden Figures was one that I enjoyed, and I have heard that a lot of students here have seen it as well. It showed some of the important computing that was involved in getting to space. Two of my uncles were also engineers, so I had some idea what electrical engineering was about from their own experiences.
While teaching, is there a philosophy you follow, or a list of things you make sure to do while teaching or interacting with students?
I try to take some guidance from an instructor who taught a class I really enjoyed as an undergrad; I really enjoyed the class and the professor’s approach to teaching. I also like to bring artifacts into class to show old and relevant, as well as modern, computer technology to engage students.
Starting a discussion about the history of computing and why things had developed in the way that they did really intrigued me as an undergrad, and I believe it still works well today. Trying to figure out how to continue to bring technology into class in better ways is also one of my goals.
Over the years, you have accrued many awards in teaching, including the Outstanding Teacher Awards for two years in a row. What, or who, do you think played a crucial role in you becoming a professor?
When I came back to campus my senior year, I happened to run into a professor in one of my electronics courses that I had enjoyed quite a bit. Just that summer, I had been at an internship where they had offered me a full-time position after I finished my undergraduate degree.
But this professor, while I was literally walking across campus, asked me how I was doing. Then he said “You’re going to grad school, right?,” and I was like “What? Where’d that come from?”. He said that I did really well in the electronics class and that he believed that I would enjoy grad school a lot. I mulled over his comment for a bit, then decided to apply for grad school at a few places, eventually ending up here at Purdue with a teaching assistantship.
I did a fair amount of teaching as a GTA, spent some time as a research assistant, and eventually went to work for NASA. But after four years at NASA, I decided to come back to Purdue to become involved with the university yet again.
If you were to give advice to current students, what would you say from your experience that has helped you?
I would never have predicted my professional path at the time I was an undergrad. I don’t think it’s worth spending a lot of time trying to predict what your professional path would be. What I did do, what I feel is something I truly enjoyed, is that I took advantage of opportunities when they came along, and I didn’t necessarily do the obvious thing.
Going to NASA was a bigger step for me, it was way across the country from Purdue, and I come from further east from here. It was a national laboratory, as opposed to an industry opportunity, so it was a different part of society. One of the things that I found that was useful from all this experience of doing different projects, and now being an instructor here at the Computer Science department, it is that what really matters is to be able to adapt and become proficient at new opportunities.
So, sometimes, my advice to students is that instead of thinking about what specifically might you do when you graduate, and what might you be doing 5 years after that, be sure that you are good at getting good at something. Follow the things that interest you, so then putting the time in to become really proficient and have some expertise will feel like it’s fun. Fun is good.