Associate Professor of Computer Science
Ph.D., University of Georgia
BBA University of Georgia
Whether his students are computer novices or self-taught tech whizzes, University of Maine at Farmington Associate Professor of Computer Science Chris Bennett tailors his instruction to his students’ individual needs with small classes and one-to-one interaction.
“It’s nice because our class size is small. There are about 30-40 students majoring in Computer Science at any given time, but there are also a number of students pursuing minors as well as two concentrations in Health Information Technology and Interactive Media that overlap with Computer Science,” Bennett explained. Interactive Media combines Art and Computer Science and Health Information Systems combines Community Health Education, Business, and Computer Science.
“That’s what’s the most fun about Computer Science. It can be applied to absolutely anything. That’s one of the things I like best about the field,” Bennett said. “Adding a Computer Science minor can give a person a leg up in the job market or in graduate school. It’s a very marketable skill set. When we see talented students in our introductory courses, we try to encourage them to add a minor, because it can only help them after graduation.”
No Crash Zone
While all UMF students have access to the University’s Computer Center, there are also two labs dedicated to the Computer Science department.
“We have our own labs, a teaching lab and a project lab where students can focus on their independent projects. That’s one of the strengths of our program: that students can work with faculty to create independent studies based on the students’ interests. It gives individuals the opportunity to explore subjects that we don’t necessarily have classes in,” Bennett said.
In the labs, students can work with a variety of platforms for programming, such as Linux and Windows as well as several others. The project lab also provides hands-on experience for computer science majors who serve as tutors for introductory classes.
“It’s a great environment to experiment and play around with ideas,” Bennett said. “In certain classes, we’re writing programs at a level that could crash a computer, but in the lab we can set up environments where students can mess around, and we can simply reset everything without any damage, and we can provide equipment for networking that would be out-of-reach for personal use.”
A Winning Solution
One of Bennett’s former students, now a UMF graduate pursuing his doctorate at Iowa State University, investigated a classic logic puzzle — a coin-moving game — that was also being studied at MIT. The former UMF student created an original computer application that came up with a faster way to solve the puzzle than had been done before, Bennett said.
The student’s computer application earned him an assistantship to graduate school, but it could also prove invaluable, Bennett explained. The coin-moving game solution could have applications moving data, inventory, and vehicles more effectively. “He is a very motivated guy, very sharp. He saw the chance to do something great and he did it,” Bennett said.
Up and Coming Developers
“Another one of my students began building a native video editing app for Android. Although Google beat him to market with that app, he learned so much from his undergraduate research that he went on to make money creating other Android apps,” Bennett said.
Yet another UMF student — who loved video games — developed a dynamic content generator. Simply put, it gave players a new experience every time they played the game. “It was an interesting project, coming up with randomly created content that was supposed to mirror reality,” Bennett said.
“He went out and got a job in the gaming industry and found out it wasn’t for him, but because he had a broad computer science background, he was able to find another job that was much more suited to him,” Bennett said. “I tell a lot of students that unless you know you want to work in video games for 30 years it’s better to take a broader approach to computer science.”
Dissecting a Kinect
In one of his classes, Bennett and his students are dissecting a Microsoft Kinect unit used with Windows and the Xbox. The $100 tool allows remote free gaming by tracking players’ voices and movements. Once his students break down and understand all the elements, they will use those elements to create new applications.
“The idea is we’re learning all the tools inside the Kinect. There are two cameras with skeletal tracking software to detect human motion, and there are four microphones that can identify the source of a sound as well speech recognition software. Students are using the components to create their own applications,” Bennett explained.
Some of Bennett’s students look to adapt the technology for other gaming uses, while others focus on utility applications such as creating an interface that allows a person to move or open a file on a computer with voice hand movement commands — removing the need for a mouse or keyboard.
“Some of these applications have been done before. What I’m encouraging people to do is to take those ongoing projects a step further. We don’t have to do things from scratch every time. We can take these open projects and build on them” Bennett said.
Science Fiction Becomes Fact
Bennett wants his students to have access to the latest technology, because their field is about to take another giant leap forward.
“There’s a cool application using the Wii technology that lets you do 3-D design. You could literally design a cup on a computer, and print it and fabricate a cup with a 3-D printer. This technology isn’t commercial yet, but there are these working proof-of-concept projects that show you what is coming down the road,” Bennett said.
“There’s this horizon where all these new things are happening, and we want to give our students a chance to learn these tools now because that’s what people will be working with in 5 or 10 years, whether it’s mobile programming for iPhone or Android, or working with motion sensing technology, or the next generation of 3-D printers,” Bennett said.
“Technology is never as overwhelming as it seems. If you keep peeling back the layers you eventually get down to something you understand. Computer science is not just learning computer languages; it’s learning to think algorithmically,” Bennett explained.
Rural, But Not Remote
Bennett and his wife moved to Farmington from the South and both enjoy the changing seasons and opportunities for outdoor recreation. Bennett’s favorite spot on campus is walking with his dogs along the Sandy River beside the UMF intramural fields