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Illinois CS Teaching Inspires Fisher to Extend Support for Award, and Add Honors for TAs, CAs

3/12/2019 3:00:16 PM By David Mercer

It is early on a cold, gray February morning, and Lawrence Angrave can’t stand still as heavily bundled students file past him into his 8 a.m. programming class.
Illinois CS alumnus Scott Fisher talks to students outside a class during a February visit. Fisher has agreed to extend his support of the Scott H. Fisher Computer Science Teaching Award.
Illinois CS alumnus Scott Fisher talks to students outside a class during a February visit. Fisher has agreed to extend his support of the Scott H. Fisher Computer Science Teaching Award.

“You set your alarm, you made it here through the icy conditions, wondering, ‘Was it worth it?’ Let’s find out!” the teaching professor booms, his arms spread wide in an exaggerated “welcome” gesture. 

Sitting in the back row of the lecture hall, Illinois Computer Science alumnae Scott Fisher (BS Psychology ’72, MS CS ’76) is enjoying the moment – the energy, the enthusiasm, and Angrave’s ability to connect.

“Is he the best prof you’ve ever had the University of Illinois, or what?” Fisher, now joining Angrave at the front of the hall, asks a few moments later. “This guy is really good. You’re lucky to be in this class.” 

Fisher is a regular visitor to the department. His admiration for the faculty and the education they provide to Illinois CS students is part of the reason he keeps coming back. It has also inspired him to be a generous donor.

In 2017 Fisher established the Scott H. and Bonita J. Fisher Endowment.  The endowment honors his late wife, Bonnie, and funds a professorship in computer science and mathematics. It also provides funding for the university’s main library and the Grainger Engineering Library.

But many of Fisher’s gifts are focused on undergraduate teaching, inspired by the kind of rigor he experienced as a student and what he sees in classes like those taught by Angrave.

Fisher also established the Scott H. Fisher Computer Science Teaching Award in 2017. It is the department’s first-ever honor dedicated to excellence in teaching. Angrave was the inaugural winner and Associate Professor Crag Zilles was last year’s winner.
Teaching Professor Lawrence Angrave talks with a student after class.
Teaching Professor Lawrence Angrave talks with a student after class.

Now Fisher has agreed to extend his support for Teaching Award, and fund two upcoming awards that will recognize excellence among the department’s teaching assistants and course assistants.

Angrave has been recognized a number of times by the university as an excellent teacher, and as he and Fisher both point out, he is hardly alone.

Early this month, the Center of Innovation in Teaching and Learning released its list of teachers ranked as excellent or outstanding by their students for Fall 2018 and Winter 2018-19.

It included 17 Illinois CS faculty members, among them newer faculty members focused on undergraduate education such as Teaching Associate Professor Geoffrey Challen and Teaching Assistant professor Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider.

Founder Professor of Engineering Timothy Chan and Fagen-Ulmschneider were rated outstanding.

The list also included 40 Illinois CS teaching assistants ranked as either outstanding or excellent.

 As a student at Illinois, Fisher found the pioneering computer culture it has become known for, but he’s grown increasingly impressed by the department’s added emphasis on undergraduate teaching.

“When you come here, you are joining the best.  You have the opportunity to gain a complete technical education so that you will know how things work and can handle the tough stuff,” he said. “We’ve really got a good balance to ensure that students graduate with the knowledge necessary.”

Fisher started his career with Digital Equipment Corporation, contributing to the VAX/VMS operating system, the PDP-11 minicomputer, and the DECsystem line of servers. More recently, he retired after several years as a program manager with the Minnesota-based water, hygiene, and energy technologies firm Ecolab.
Scott Fisher observes during a programming class in February. Fisher emphasizes how much the education he received while a student at Illinois CS prepared him for a career in technology.
Scott Fisher observes during a programming class in February. Fisher emphasizes how much the education he received while a student at Illinois CS prepared him for a career in technology.

Fisher sees that focus on detail and rigor in when he watches faculty members like Angrave.

“I think he’s able to convey hard material in a way that’s fun and productive for the students,” Fisher said.

Angrave, who came to Illinois Computer Science in 2006, said the people in the department, faculty and students, feed the sort of enthusiasm Fisher witnessed in class.

“I love the community, both at the faculty level and the student level. I think we really do challenge people here, to be the best and to explore new things,” Angrave said.

Outside Angrave’s programming class, students gather. Some are there for office hours in the ECE atrium with the professor, but others huddle nearby with Fisher.

They want to know what he can tell them about what he learned on campus that stuck with him through his career.

There are a handful of key classes that are essential, Fisher advises.

But, ultimately, he tells them they need something fundamental that he sees being taught in Illinois CS, something he believes is rooted in the early days of computing innovation that first put Illinois Computer Science on the map.

“You’ve got to know how things work,” he tells them.