A Teacher First: A Conversation with Dr. Richard Fairley

CTU Professor Dr. Richard FairleyEvery year, the Nancy Mead Award for Excellence in Software Engineering Education is given to one teacher who has demonstrated a history of achievement in the field. CTU is proud to announce that one of our faculty members, Dr. Richard Fairley, will be receiving the honor for 2016.

Dr. Fairley has been teaching software engineering and computer science for nearly 40 years, and he spoke in a recent interview about how both fields have changed significantly in that time. “The technology has evolved rapidly, and I find that every time I teach a new course, I need to add new material,” Fairley said. “The problem is what to do when you already have a full syllabus? I don’t think other fields of study change quite as rapidly as ours.”

He recalls being a student himself at a time when digital technology was just starting to come into the mainstream. “When I got my degrees, the field was moving from analog to digital and it was really fascinating to watch,” Fairley said. “When any shift in technology comes along, there are often people who are left behind. I was fortunate to be able to see where the future was heading.”

Dr. Fairley joined the faculty at Colorado Technical University in 1995, where he focuses on analysis and design. He appreciates a customer-oriented approach to engineering because it starts with a definitive problem that needs to be solved. “I like to try to figure out exactly what the customer wants, which they often don’t know themselves, and then lay out a plan for delivering the product. This also involves having skills in the area of project management.”

The Nancy Mead Award is first and foremost an award for teaching, and Dr. Fairley attributes much of his success as an educator to striking an important balance. “I try to give my students the fundamental knowledge that will last their entire career and the skills they can apply immediately when they graduate,” Fairley said. “All of my courses include projects so that my students always have to apply the things they are learning to an actual problem.”

Dr. Fairley loves his teaching work, but he had no expectations of ever winning the Nancy Mead Award. “A while back, a colleague asked me to send a copy of my vita, but I didn’t know why he wanted it,” Fairley said. “I knew about the Nancy Mead Award, but never anticipated that I would receive it. It was a total surprise.”

Whether in the classroom or in the workplace, Dr. Fairley believes that every computer scientist or software engineer should think of themselves as a teacher. “I tell all of my students that you have an obligation to be a teacher and pass on what you learn. You might not end up at a university, but wherever you work, always try to interest others in new ideas. In reality, one of the main reason that companies hire new people is to try to inject new ideas.”

Even after a long career, Dr. Fairley still looks forward to a new session and new students. He’s working to cram all those new ideas into an already-packed syllabus. He’s excited to give the next generation of computer scientists and engineers a glimpse of the future, and now he’s got the award to prove it. The award will be presented next month at the 29th annual Conference on Software Engineering Education and Training in Dallas, TX.

Are you interested in computers and technology? Check out CTU’s Computer Science Career Guide.