Joseph O'Rourke

Smith College
2001 DTS Award

Dr. Joseph O'Rourke
Olin Professor of Computer Science
Smith College

Computational Geometry Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Joseph O'Rourke.

Dr. O'Rourke, If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab - the environment in which you work with students - what impression would s/he leave with?

A good portion of the work I do with students is indistinguishable from play: We tape bent straws to the table, cut out shapes with scissors, build polyhedra out of playing cards, and puzzle over images rotating on a workstation screen. Most of the work is fun, and when we feel close to a discovery, exciting. I should add, however, that the norm is a state of mild befuddlement, a state one grows used to in research.

What brought you to an interest in "advancing the frontiers of education" and to connecting your research to that work?

I have never thought of myself as advancing the frontiers of education. I would give most of the credit to NSF, whose innovative calls for proposals entice researchers to stretch themselves in new directions. I see potential in my work to reach a broad spectrum of students, and the DTS award allows me to try to realize that potential.

Were there risks in doing this? What were they? What made you persevere? How have you documented the successes of your educational efforts?

In the short term, the only risk was to invest so much thought, time, and energy in a proposal so unlikely to be funded. In the longer term, there is no question that time spent on education generally does not push the frontier of research. However, it is nearly a personal quirk of mine that I only achieve thorough understanding of an area by reaching the mastery necessary for exposition. Thus my educational efforts, documented in my books and expository articles, have helped my research.

What connections have been of most value in pursuing these efforts, within your campus community as well as in the broader professional communities to which you belong?

Steady participation in a coherent, focused professional group over a long period has made a difference for me. Discrete and Computational Geometry has provided such a steady haven. On my campus, connections across the liberal arts have been very valuable, especially to Philosophy, Psychology, and Education.

For faculty at an early career stage, it is difficult to figure out how to balance responsibilities for research and teaching while having a personal life; any advice - for them and for faculty at any stage?

It remains difficult for me. Certainly the balance should shift according to one's talents and circumstances. If someone finds constant, unresolved tension between their teaching and research duties, then a move to a job that balances them differently should be considered.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and education?

It must be one that truly values education as well as scholarship. Fortunately this is precisely the culture found at the better liberal arts colleges, and why I moved from a research university to such a college.

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts?

The NSF's efforts are exemplary: not only the DTS program, which is directly aimed at changing the culture, but also the CAREER awards and others include an educational component. I think the culture *is* changing, albeit slowly.

Please tell us about the project that you will be undertaking as part of the DTS award. How can others be involved with and/or continue to be informed about your work?

My project seeks to bring my research on folding and unfolding, which has an unusual intuitive appeal, into different levels of the educational system, from grade school, to middle school, to high school, to college, to college teachers, to graduate school, and into industry. I plan to document my progress and make all instructional materials available through the Web. A monograph, ultimately with an accompanying CD of software, will constitute a more permanent product.