The Computer Science Experience: Wythe Finalist Dr. Nathan Backman



Allyssa Ertz, Editor-in-Chief

*This article is the third in a series of features of the 2019 Wythe Award finalists.

Dr. Nathan Backman, Associate Professor of Computer Science, eyed his cream soda collection as he sat in his office chair. In the midst of wondering what flavor he could add to his cream soda collection that he didn’t have already, unexpectedly, the chair of the Wythe Award committee knocked on the door to inform him he was a finalist.

Backman has been nominated for the award before, but this is his first time as a finalist. He was pleasantly surprised when chair Jerry Johnson let him know he’d made the final four.

The Wythe Award is BVU’s highest honor for excellence in teaching. Endowed in 1988 through a gift from Life Trustees of BV, Paul and Vivian McCorkle, this award is named for George Wythe. Wythe was an educator who had taught famous fathers of the American Revolution including Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.

Chair of the George Wythe Award selection committee Jerry Johnson says faculty are nominated by students, staff, and other faculty members in the beginning of the school year. Four finalists are chosen from these nominations, and each individual has to request 10 letters of recommendation from faculty, alumni, and/or current students at the University. These are then reviewed by the selection committee to choose the final award recipient.

2019 George Wythe Award Finalists from Left to Right: Dr. Calle Friesen, Dr. Shawn Stone, Dr. Nathan Backman, Dr. Jared White. Photo Courtesy of UMC

Backman ultimately tries to create an experience for each student in his courses. He wants every student to be excited in completing valuable creations as well as be able to add them to their resumé. His goal is to prompt students to connect with material on a deeper level of understanding.

Outside of the classroom, Backman engages with students in various ways such as a Computer Security Capture the Flag contest. He’s thankful for the flexibility BV gives him in this aspect because of its small school atmosphere.

“It’s awesome. It’s something that doesn’t really exist for Undergrads anywhere in the world, really, so it’s unique in that sense,” he says. “It’s meant to be a learning opportunity, to get people exposed to computer security.”

He tries to get all of his students to participate, and thinks it’s a great opportunity because he can integrate so many aspects of computer science into this one particular contest, so it gives students opportunities to see how they are growing and progressing from year to year.

Over January, Backman took students to Seattle to live a start-up life. These students rented a house and lived in it for the 20 days of J-Term, and created an entire app as well as visited places like Microsoft, Adobe, Amazon, and Nike.

Have you ever been to a restaurant, and been completely overwhelmed by their menu, unsure of what to order? This app, named “What’s Good Here?” could help you in your future. It’s different from other apps such as Yelp, which only allow you to rate the restaurant. This one allows you to rate the actual menu. There’s different options for rating including quality of food, the food itself, pricing, and portion size. It’s not out yet, but there will be an official release in the near future.

“When I think about creating a class, I try to think about what cool projects could we do that’ll really help them figure out what’s going on here? And have these tangible things, things that they’ll never forget,” Backman says.

Backman grew up in California, going on to attend Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington to get his B.S. and B.A. in Computer Science as well as Mathematics.

“Not really sure how I ended up there. I might’ve just kind of followed my sister there a little bit,” he jokes.

He had visited his sister many times, and one time decided to visit as a potential student. On this visit, he fell in love with what they had there at the small school. He ate up their computer science content, and knew he wanted to do even more, so he continued to complete his Masters in Science and PhD in Computer Science at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

He enjoyed his own project at Brown, but wasn’t fond of continuing to do research at a higher institution. He’d always wanted to teach, and loved computer science so much that he wanted to share it with others.

When he finished school, he searched for small undergrad schools where he could teach. He found his home at BVU.

He hadn’t heard of the university before he applied; his wife, Megan, found the school as she searched for possibilities near people they knew (his family/her family). He loved his first visit and has loved it ever since.

The fact that you can create something through the design of complex computer systems that solve interesting problems is Backman’s “thing.”

“With computer programming, there’s just like this low barrier to entry. It’s kind of complicated and complex, but you can start simple, and you can do it with about any resources you’ve got. You have a computer, you can basically get started on it,” he states.

The Wythe Award winner receives a $30,000 cash award and sabbatical for its recipient to pursue professional development and/or research in their field.

On a sabbatical, Backman would enjoy focusing on ways that he could make other interesting classes happen on BVU’s campus or would be interested in looking into what could be done in the start-up realm, especially with the recent experience in the Seattle trip. He also would potentially collaborate with the business entrepreneurial program to create some synergy throughout campus.

In approaching the program of computer science, Backman wants to ensure he’s doing everything he can to do it well with valuable content. He analyzes other schools and programs to see how they do things, and implements (or doesn’t) strategies to build programs and teach each of his classes to his absolute best. He does anything he can to make sure that each of his courses is doing something amazing so that when he has prospective students, he can show them that BVU’s computer science program is a standout from anywhere else in the world.

“Dr. Backman shows so much infectious passion for computer science that I can’t help but want to keep learning. He wants every student to succeed and will go miles out of his way to help whenever and wherever he can,” says senior Computer Science major Garrett Beebe. “I can’t speak enough good about the man. Literally best teacher I ever had.”

Seeing students get excited about his favorite subject is Backman’s favorite part of the job. One memory stands out to him. He’d taught students a theoretically simple concept in the subject of networking communications that has a profound impact when students discover its importance. One student’s reaction in particular thrilled Backman.

“One of my students, he just got it. He understood why it was so revolutionary. And he looked at the guy next to him and said, ‘Do you know what this means?!’ And I was like, ‘Yes!!!’”

This is all Backman says he hopes for in his teaching. To create these experiences.