Buster Dunsmore: Then and Now
Writer(s): Kristyn Childres
Long before Buster Dunsmore became a professor, he struggled in his first computer science class as an undergrad at the University of Tennessee. The instructor of that class had little interest in teaching, and Buster nearly failed his first computer science exam, coming close to dropping out. He remembers thinking, “If I ever get the chance to teach computer science, I will do my best to do it better.”
Buster has done just that. After nearly 40 years of teaching at Purdue, Buster has won the university’s highest teaching award and has played a crucial role in pioneering many of the department’s most important advances in curriculum and teaching.
Buster came to Purdue in 1978. He had just finished grad school at the University of Maryland. While in grad school, he interviewed for faculty positions at several schools, including the University of Illinois and Ohio State. But one day, former Purdue CS department head Sam Conte appeared at his office door. (Sam was visiting collaborators at Maryland.) “Why haven’t you applied to Purdue?” he asked Buster. “We could use someone like you.”
So, Buster interviewed at Purdue. By the time Sam Conte called to offer him the job, he had other offers, but Buster accepted Purdue’s offer immediately. “I’m not sure why,” he says. “It just felt right.”
Everything Buster knows about teaching, he has learned through trial and error. When he arrived at Purdue, Buster had never been shown how to teach. He has taught programming languages and software engineering, usually to classes larger than 100 students. Eventually he learned that even though the students might have read the textbook, they probably didn’t really understand the concepts. Over time, he tried different ways to explain the concepts he was teaching. He kept what worked and tried new ways to explain what didn’t.
Buster won Purdue’s coveted Murphy Award for outstanding undergraduate teaching in 1996, but says that the award that means the most to him is the ACM Faculty Award, which is chosen by the students in the department. He has won the award so many times that he now tells students not to vote for him because there are new, outstanding faculty members early in their careers who deserve to win the award.
Buster often serves as a mentor for these new faculty members. They stop by his office to talk about issues in their classes or labs. He became chair of the undergrad committee in computer science 25 years ago and held that role for 23 of the last 25 years.
Buster helped establish the core CS courses and spearheaded the creation of the nine tracks in the undergraduate computer science major — a feature for which Purdue is known across the country.
He has served as the faculty advisor for several student organizations, including the ACM, the Undergraduate Student Board, and Purdue Hackers. He continues to serve as chair of the software engineering track.
Buster also revitalized CS 307 (Software Engineering). In 2010, enrollment had dwindled to just twelve students per year and the methods being taught were old and out of date. Buster began teaching Agile and Scrum software development with the help of former TA Kevin Schenk (now at Nielsen), who created teaching materials. For some time, Purdue was the only school teaching those methods. Now, at 150 students per semester, software engineering is the biggest class in the department.
He has taught the first course for freshmen, CS 180, at various times in his Purdue career, returning to it nearly a decade ago. Four years ago, Buster helped develop the Bridge program for incoming students who had little or no programming experience. These incoming students often lacked confidence in their abilities and felt intimidated by peers with more programming experience. The Bridge program brings incoming freshmen who are new to programming to campus for a two-week intensive course before the fall semester begins.
“We used to retain just 10 percent of students who came in with little or no programming experience, but as a result of Bridge, we now retain 75 percent of them,” Buster said. The first class of Bridge students graduated from Purdue in May 2017.
Buster teaches the Bridge class. “I work hard in teaching them, but I believe that it’s the bonds that students form with each other that keep them here,” he says. “They develop a community of fellow CS majors whom they can turn to before classes even start in the fall. Research shows that students are much less likely to drop out if they think they’ll be disappointing their peers.”