Patterson Helping Grow Computer Science At UNCW

By Jenny Callison, posted Nov 6, 2015
In her role as chair of University of North Carolina Wilmington’s computer science department, Laurie Patterson helps plan new programs to address the rapid pace of technological change. (Photo by Mark Steelman)
Laurie Patterson is part academic, part administrator and part meteorologist. As chair of the computer science department at University of North Carolina Wilmington, she keeps her finger in the wind to stay abreast of rapidly changing technology and demand for education and skills development.  

Knowledge is expanding in many areas of study, but constant innovation makes keeping up to the moment a special challenge in the technology field. Patterson admits she doesn’t always know the answers when students ask her about a particular application or program.

“It has happened. They have acquired some technology I’ve never heard of. Students make me stay on my toes,” she said.

Because technology is changing and quickly becoming essential to businesses and organizations of all kinds, university courses and majors must be responsive to the expectations of students and the needs of the marketplace. With demand increasing for coding and programming skills, Patterson is closely involved as the university looks at new programs and new majors to address the market needs.

UNCW now has three undergraduate programs dealing with technology. There is computer science, a major within the College of Arts and Sciences. The Cameron School of Business offers a management information systems (MIS) major.

And two years ago, the university developed an information technology major that has a foot in both computer science and MIS. Graduates with the hybrid major can manage computer systems in business settings at a small-scale or big-picture level.

The information technology major has “dramatically taken off,” Patterson said at the close of the 2014-15 academic year. “We just completed our second year of offering it, and we had more students at the end of our first semester than we had envisioned to have at the end of our second year.”

There is a high demand for students from all three majors, Patterson said.

“These students are getting tapped. Companies are so looking for graduates with technology training and an aptitude for problem solving,” she said.

Since technology is changing the way many jobs are done, education officials are seeing opportunities to create even more hybrid majors that combine technology with another subject. Patterson said her department is considering a digital arts program to blend the study of studio art with the development of students’ computer design skills.

UNCW’s computer science master’s degree program is also a hybrid – the product of collaboration between Patterson’s department and the Information Systems and Operations Management department in the Cameron School of Business.

The two disciplines launched the master’s degree in computer science and information systems in the fall of 2005, with a goal of “preparing the student to take on leadership roles in the development and implementation of computer and information systems,” according to the program website.

Patterson’s path into computer science – and technology in general – has been an indirect one.

She grew up in Minnesota, the youngest of eight children. After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology, she went to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When a round of federal job cuts landed her position on the chopping block, she returned to the University of Minnesota. She worked in a department office and developed a reputation for being handy with technology gadgets.

“I’ve always liked tinkering,” she said. “My father was an electrician, and I could figure out issues.”

One day her boss asked Patterson to fix a broken Mac computer. She did, and that fix-it moment changed things. The next day she found the repaired computer on her desk and quickly became the data and technology guru in her office, streamlining department budgeting and other operations.

Also at the University of Minnesota, Patterson completed a master’s degree program focused on the use of computers to gather and analyze data. Although she had proved she could tinker successfully with computer equipment and was gaining familiarity for how computer programs were designed, she was using computers only as a means to an end.

Then Patterson’s husband, Philip Furia, was hired by UNCW, and she came to Wilmington as a trailing spouse. She found a teaching position at the university and began pursuing a doctorate through Nova Southeastern University. Once she was awarded her degree, Patterson was hired for a tenure-track position within computer science. She is in her third year as department chair.

One of Patterson’s research interests is gender and technology. She actively encourages more women to get into technology-related fields and champions their contributions.

Patterson recently attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Houston.

“There were 12,000 attendees – most of them women,” she said about the event in October. “That was quite a jump from two years ago when about 4,000 people attended.”

Increased numbers at a national conference do not necessarily equate to an influx of women into positions of influence in technology, she said.

“The number of women in information technology peaked in 1983 as a result of Title IX, the feminist movement and several other factors,” Patterson said. “But that number then began consistently dropping off. Now it’s coming up a bit but not as fast.”

Many women are getting into technology later in their careers, approaching it from other fields, according to Patterson, who said she asks herself if this is a good thing and if these women ultimately stay in technology.

“There is more encouragement for women now, but in technology, if you stop out to have children, you are way behind when you come back,” she said. “There were more role models for me because of that peak in 1983 than there are now. ”
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