Brian McClendon, a 1986 KU electrical engineering graduate, surprised first-year students in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at the University of Kansas by handing out new tablet computers during class on Monday, Sept. 12. Much more than a cool gift, the tablets are a tool to spark creativity and entrepreneurship.
Brian and his wife, Beth Ellyn, donated $50,000 to KU Endowment for the purchase of Android-based tablets that will provide EECS students with unprecedented programming and development experience on the world’s fastest-growing mobile platform. It’s all part of a plan to ensure KU students gain practical experience with leading-edge technologies.
“I want these engineers to be prepared to jump into a job when they graduate and, for many, that will mean programming for mobile computing. Low-cost smartphones and tablets are revolutionizing the world’s access to information, and they need to be ready,” said McClendon, a vice president of engineering for Google and a co-creator of Google Earth.
“Brian has returned to the KU campus several times over the years and each time he shares with our students amazing insight about where the computing industry is headed,” said Stuart Bell, dean of the School of Engineering. “It’s that kind of alumni involvement and interaction that makes our students some of the most attractive engineers and computer scientists for industry. Brian’s ability to inspire our students’ creativity and exploration is perhaps his greatest gift.”
Eighty-nine students are in enrolled this fall in the required Programming I class, and those taking the introductory course in the spring will receive the Motorola Xoom tablets as well. Students will be expected to use them in coursework over the next two years, but are encouraged to use them for enjoyment as well as their own professional development. Students must receive at least a C in the course and remain an EECS major to keep the tablet.
Decades ago, tablet computing and mobile devices were only found in science fiction and dime-store comic books. Huge technological advances had to happen before this futuristic technology became a reality, says EECS Assistant Professor Brian Potetz, who teaches one section of Programming I. But now that it has, the department is integrating mobile computing into multiple courses, focusing on security, design and other features that differentiate it from traditional computers.
The tablets also will make course lessons much more interactive, said EECS Assistant Professor Bo Luo, the other instructor for Programming I. Instead of reading squashed code on a power point slide, professors can open and highlight code. With everyone having the same device, it becomes easier for professors to lead in-class programming exercises.
“We believe that mobile computers provide an outstanding platform to enliven the learning process without sacrificing fundamentals,” said Potetz.
By developing simplified versions of Android programming capabilities, Potetz and Luo hope to give students a feel for what they will be able to do. For example, they have developed a photo manipulation exercise that takes advantage of tablet’s camera feature to teach basic programming.
Because the tablet computer giveaway would move course content in a new direction, the plan has been in the works and under wraps for several months.
During the department’s Advisory Board meeting in April, McClendon challenged the department to find new ways to recruit and retain students. He proposed the giveaway, and the Lawrence Motorola office provided a discount on the Xoom tablets.
McClendon is a graduate of Lawrence High School and has given generously to both KU and LHS.