Dan Grossman Maps his own Trail

“I graduated from Rice in 1997 with degrees in computer science and electrical engineering,” said Dan Grossman. “These days, my CS colleagues would be fairly shocked to learn I have an EE degree whereas the CS all stuck with me.”

Grossman said his father also has a Rice EE degree (class of 1968) and likes to say he was ‘part of the last tuition-free class’ at Rice. “So I’d always known about Rice, and in high school it really began to appeal to me. It was a small school in a big city, with a strong science and engineering focus. Even so, I went off to college not really knowing what I would major in; I’d been a speech and debate nerd in high school.”

While mapping out courses for his second semester at Rice, his friend Rakesh Agrawal said, “Why don’t you take COMP 210? It seems like the sort of thing you’d like.” Unlike Agrawal, Grossman had no previous programming experience, but he took the course with his friend anyway.

“Twenty years later, I’m a full professor in the University of Washington Department of Computer Science & Engineering, all because Rakesh said, ‘it seems like the kind of thing you’d like,’” said Grossman. “I try to remember that every conversation I have with an undergraduate might be inadvertently life-altering.”

Grossman took COMP 280 and then COMP 381 at Rice under Mark Krentel. Krentel then took the initiative to suggest Grossman talk to another CS professor about a summer research position.

“I sent a polite email to Matthias Felleisen, which alas has not survived as I’d love to have it, who asked me to stop by his office,” said Grossman. “When I arrived, he was deep in conversation with two or three other people but interrupted the discussion to ask me three interview questions. I answered all of them incorrectly, I thought, but he still offered me a summer job on the spot and asked when I could start. I spent that summer doing research in programming languages, which is the field I’m still in.” Grossman shared an office that summer with Ph.D. student Matthew Flatt, now a CS professor at the University of Utah.

At one point over the summer, Grossman and friends went to Chuy’s, a local Tex-Mex restaurant for dinner. “We arrived without realizing there was a major happy hour event going on, and had to wait for a table for about 45 minutes,” said Grossman. While talking with his friends, Grossman kept observing the happy hour crowd and began to compare it to his previous expectations of finishing a bachelor’s degree, getting a job, and buying a house in the suburbs.

“As I watched all those professionals in their mid-20s, standing around in their work clothes and chit-chatting over drinks, I realized how much I did not want to be there in four years. I wondered if there was another path for me,” said Grossman.

With the rough and completely impossible idea of staying in college forever, the thought of going to graduate school gradually began to take hold. Krentel, who had completed his Ph.D. at Cornell, often advised his students to look outside of Rice for their next degree.

Krentel, now a staff researcher at Rice, said, “I always say it is better to go some place else for grad school, and I recall Dan was looking at Cornell and the University of Washington. I had done my graduate work at Cornell, but our department had several Cornell connections – Corky Cartwright, Joe Warren, Devika Subramanian. But John Bennett, an EE professor, was really urging Dan to go to Washington. I just told him to lay out his options and pick the kind of environment he wanted – small town, big city, East Coast, West Coast.”

Grossman decided to attend Cornell, but later accepted a faculty position at the University of Washington, where he holds the J. Ray Bowen Professorship For Innovation in Engineering Education.

“I’m a professor who has my agenda in Programming Languages and I’ve advised 10 graduate students, but I’ve always been particularly focused on the education side of my job,” he said. “That probably has roots in Rice’s exceptional undergraduate experience.”

At Washington, Grossman led an initiative to revise the undergraduate curriculum and served on the steering committee for the 2013 ACM/IEEE-CS Computer Science Curriculum Guidelines. He also created a massively open online course (MOOC) based on one of his UW classes.

He said, “I’ve always been passionate about my own classroom teaching, and when the MOOC hype peaked in 2012/2013, I wanted to do that too. It’s been fun via MOOC conversations to reconnect with Joe Warren (and to meet Scott Rixner) and talk about how we’ve solved different challenges, though I should emphasize that their MOOC has been much more popular than mine.”

Although creating a MOOC from scratch was a challenge, Grossman said an adventure he pursued as an undergraduate always puts things into perspective. He said, “Although some of my classmates did corporate internships, they weren’t as prevalent then, so I was sitting in a sophomore class at Rice thinking that I needed a big life adventure.”

What popped into his head next was an image of the Appalachian Trail. Grossman said, “I walked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine over two summers. I did the first half after my junior year, and the second half after my senior year. After the first trek, walking 1000 miles up and down mountains in rain and all kinds of weather, working on computer science problems didn’t seem all that hard when I came back to school.”