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New professor Lucas Cordova builds community in computer sciences

Sage Lamott

Staff Writer

Photo from the Willamette University Website

New computer science professor Lucas Cordova’s teaching philosophy can be summarized in simple terms: “be more human.” In conversation with Professor Cordova, the new professor emphasized an approach centered around community involvement, student engagement and campus vibrancy.

Cordova's love of the community comes from having lived in Salem for many years. Becoming a professor at Willamette has now allowed him to “become more integrated into the community.” He views the university as an “opportunity to bring people and cultures together.” The school’s growing STEM, and more specifically its computer science and data science departments, were an immense draw for Cordova when selecting where to work. “The university is seeing rapid growth within the computer science department,” he said, “and I am really eager to contribute to that growth.”

Enjoying the Willamette environment so far, he discussed his appreciation for the open access of the Ford building. He mentioned how Ford’s second floor in particular has an open and creative ambiance that allows for easy collaboration and student assistance. “I love the vibrancy of Willamette. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that before,” Cordova said.

The new computer science professor has been in the teaching field for seven years, having previously worked at Western Oregon University and the Oregon Institute of Technology. Before diving into teaching, Cordova worked in the software development industry, giving him practical experience that allows him to center his teaching around real-world application. When referencing the liberal arts learning style of the university, he acknowledged the value of showing students the practicality of what they’re learning. He strives for students to walk away from his class with tangible uses of all the code they’ve learned. In his own words, he prefers “application versus theory when it comes to coding and data.” He additionally refers to his students as “peers in training,” which allows for a sense of class camaraderie that he values.

Cordova still recalls his first computer science professor in college. “She was a woman of color,” he said, “and I was inspired that other people who looked like me did the thing I wanted to do.” While his original major intent was chemistry, her class was a factor in his decision to switch majors. He said that he tries to emulate her here at Willamette, because it “takes just that one professor to make students feel welcomed.”

Actively integrating the positive experience he had in college, he adds the same level of care and compassion to his courses. He noted, “It is okay to mess up and show weakness. I want my students to engage with the class and ask questions. That’s what learning is all about.” His teaching philosophy centers around collaborative learning, which benefits his students and fellow academic peers. “Good students are the students that try, that can think outside of the box,” he commented.

A detriment to this learning has emerged in the classroom, however, in the form of AI—especially in Cordova's field. His approach tries to properly utilize AI instead of fighting against it. “AI is a tool we can use to expedite and improve what we are already doing,” he said. He cited the example of students using Chat GPT to learn interview strategies. The system can ask questions and provide feedback on student responses, serving as a quick and easy assistant in preparing for an interview. He feels that “AI isn’t something to be afraid of. It's a resource in our field. We just need to figure out how to utilize it.”

Bringing a fresh attitude, mindset and approach to teaching data science, Cordova provides a much needed new perspective to teaching within the computer science department. If you ever have any data science questions, be sure to swing by his office on Ford second! There’s a fancy, brand-new coffee machine in there.

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