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Mayfield leads rapidly developing computer science program

Barry McNamara
05/30/2019
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Computer science is one of the youngest disciplines at Monmouth College. It’s so young that the tenure of its senior faculty member, Logan Mayfield, overlapped with one of the professors who in 1983 started computer science at Monmouth, Marta Tucker.

Mayfield assumed that senior role when Tucker retired last year, and he is now a full professor, a promotion that was announced during this spring’s commencement ceremony.

A faculty member since 2007, Mayfield has already worked on a pair of changes to the computer science curriculum and been the driving force behind the addition of data science as one of three new STEM initiatives at the College. He also enjoys his role in Monmouth’s Integrated Studies curriculum, teaching a Reflections course on artificial intelligence. Through it all, he has maintained his interest in quantum computing, which began while he was a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati.

Teaching computer science

Due to the rapidly changing field of computer science, Mayfield said it’s important to continue “creating the right set of widgets to teach programming fundamentals. The fundamentals haven’t changed, but it’s about coming up with ways to teach that are more appealing to students who have been around computers their whole lives.”

As an example, video games are increasingly being used by the department as one of the approaches to getting students started in the discipline.

When all the preparation goes according to plan, Monmouth graduates are starting their careers at above-average income levels.

“Students are making more than we do as professors at their first jobs,” said Mayfield.

Adding data science

Soon, Monmouth students will be able to graduate with a degree in data science. Mayfield recalls initially being underwhelmed by the chatter about the new field.

“As recently as five years ago, I was on the fence about data science,” he said. “It’s a really new field. It’s where computer science was as a discipline once upon a time. I wondered how much of data science is a buzzword and how much of it is that it’s a discipline in demand, and can we have that depth of study that we look for in a major.”

Mayfield said Monmouth’s students helped him climb off the fence.

“We were seeing more of our mathematics and computer science senior projects get into data science issues,” he said. “It was like data science was something they needed and wanted, but they didn’t realize it.”

A new faculty member will be added to teach data science in 2020, but the new major will begin this fall.

“There are a lot of computer science, statistics and mathematics courses that we offer that are prerequisites for data science,” said Mayfield. “Data science brings those three elements together.”

Big picture issues

Within the worlds of data science and computing, there are larger, ethical factors to consider, and Mayfield enjoys discussing them through his Reflections course.

One example of artificial intelligence, he said, is self-driving cars. When the subject first came up a few years ago, “students were sure they’d be better drivers of a car than a computer,” said Mayfield. “A couple years later, they’re all ‘Yeah, that’s fine’ (if the computer drives). It’s fun to talk about these issues. I enjoy hearing what my students have to say about it.”

Mayfield also related stories about computers playing checkers and chess, as well as the ancient board game Go. A computer was taught to play Go, using past human games to help build its field of knowledge, and it eventually was superior to humans.

“Then the same lab went out and said, ‘Don’t let it learn from us. Have it start at ground zero,’” said Mayfield. “Within 72 hours, it beat the previous AI version. That’s both terrifying and exciting, which is something I talk about with my Reflections students. I always ask them, ‘If a computer can do it better than you could ever do it, is it still worth pursuing? Is it worth pursuing if there are no new frontiers to reach?’”

The quantum leap

Speaking of frontiers, Mayfield is excited about what is happening with quantum computing. He said the niche field is an interdisciplinary one, “bringing together elements of electrical engineering, physics and computer science. ... It bridges the gap between the 1’s and 0’s of computing and understanding how to solve real problems in remarkable amounts of time.”

He said his first work with quantum computing nearly 20 years ago was “theoretical,” but things are changing fast.

“What’s been great for me is that in the last five or 10 years, quantum computing has gone from less of a ‘what if’ game to more ‘when will it happen?’ It’s a really exciting time for me. There’s a very real need for what was once more of a thought experiment – it’s now a very real thing.”