Interview with Jon M. Ernstberger – Associate Professor of Mathematics and Director of Online Instruction
November 16, 2020 | Staff Writers
Jon M. Ernstberger
Associate Professor of Mathematics and Director of Online Instruction
What is a Director of Online Instruction?
My associate professor role is traditional; I teach a variety of courses that lie at the heart of computational mathematics. My second role, Director of Online Instruction, was created to ensure the continual development of our faculty, policy, administration and legal compliance in regards to our online learning programs.
What do you love most about your job?
I love being a math professor because I get to teach people how to solve problems and use amazing tools from both the past and the present. It’s my job to ensure that my students leave my class with a rare, highly refined skill set.
I love being the Director of Online Instruction because, as we move deeper into non-traditional education, our old institution has to learn lots of new tricks. In essence, I get to be a problem solver for LaGrange College.
How did you get into CS?
I was drawn to the subject as an adolescent, when my mother, an elementary school media specialist, installed computers in each of her colleagues’ classrooms. I helped set these machines up and, although I couldn’t define it then, I saw the potential in them—a tool that could be used to make and achieve things I wanted.
I remember taking a science class in middle school that required us to connect (via dial-up) to the Internet and find/upload weather data. I really enjoyed watching the maps, measuring weather conditions outside and then sharing that information with others.
In college, my strength in mathematics grew as I fell in love with computers. I was required to take a programming class; I was just okay at it until we started incorporating math more. The two disciplines quickly became enmeshed. In an assembler language course, we did some fairly simple mathematics (base conversion). For linear algebra, I wrote a Gaussian elimination program in C++. In a numerical analysis course, I modeled string vibration by numerically solving a partial differential equation. Sometime in the midst of these courses, I realized I was hooked.
I couldn’t stop! As a senior, I took a directed study course where we modeled the heating and cooling of buildings. As a graduate student, I worked on projects where I was able to model optimal cancer treatments, which were later used at St. Jude in Memphis, TN. Then, as a doctoral student, I got to numerically model smart materials.
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What did you have to learn to qualify for the job you have now?
I program (for my mathematics courses and research) almost entirely in MATLAB and occasionally in some other language that handles text well. Currently, I’m about to start learning SQL coding to handle data in our student SIS. But for the director post, no programming skills were required. They have, however, been incredibly useful.
For a modern mathematics professor, MATLAB is reasonable since mathematics and big data are crossing paths more regularly each day. However, for someone at a Director-level role in higher education, programming ability is rare.
My transition from being a professor to someone in higher ed administration was due to my abilities to strategically plot a course to achieve a goal, simplify processes and sort/store information in useful ways. To me, this gradual process feels like diagramming code, implementing structured programming and managing data structures.
Do you have a degree in CS? If not, how did you learn?
I was about 15 credit hours away from a B.S. in computer science but had sufficient credit hours to earn an applied mathematics degree. I went on to earn a M.S. in Mathematics that was focused on algorithms designed to estimate parameters of models. Finally, I earned a Ph.D. in Computational Mathematics, where I studied a variety of nonlinear optimization and data mining techniques as well as numerical methods for a variety of equations. All in all, my education took 11 years and was worth every minute of it.
The ability to make it through a strong computer science degree, at any level, would be priceless to a student in modern computing but also in everyday life. The training that helps people diagnose problems (like troubleshooting your code) or methodically approach a dilemma (algorithm design) has been useful to me in every aspect of my life.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
By far, the most difficult part of my job is seeing a clear, logical process that needs to be executed and then having to wait for all of the pieces to fall into place. But this teaches me patience—another attribute that is necessary to work in higher ed.
What is your typical day like?
My typical day begins at 5:30 a.m. I get ready to go, drink some coffee and have some quiet time to center myself in terms of my faith and my personal goals. After my family gets off to school, I head to work around 7:30-7:45 a.m. I spend some time getting everything organized (appointments go in Google Calendar and to-dos go in Google Keep). Because of my teaching responsibilities, I try to leave some days exclusively to teaching and research; this varies term to term based upon my teaching schedule.
More generally, I try to allocate early mornings for tasks that require creativity (like writing proposals, policies, research or brainstorming meetings) and afternoons for routine, mundane tasks (like email, grading and phone calls). My wife and I balance our schedules so that some days, I leave early to pick my kids up from school and some days I work until (but no later than) 5 p.m. I’ll typically put another 1-2 hours in at night during the semester. I’m in the bed by around 11 p.m so I can be asleep by 11:30 p.m and catch six hours of sleep.
I have academic or administrative meetings almost every day. The academic meetings are important to me because they help me stay in touch with why I originally wanted to stay in higher ed: the students. I believe re-centering my focus onto the students is important. The administrative meetings originally seemed burdensome (some still are), but I learned that they serve the purpose of helping my efforts align with the goals of the greater organization. I get the chance to get input and improve upon ideas with others, and consequently, I am often kept from duplicating past efforts.
Just a few years ago I learned that I was not as creative or productive as I needed to be, that I was rude to my wife and kids and that my health was declining because I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I promptly adjusted that and now I’m trying to be more routine with my exercise. Recently, I’ve begun to journal just so I can reflect on my day. But, most importantly, I started to shift my mentality to value the personal aspects of my life; I prioritizes work and find it fulfilling and enjoyable but it’s no longer my primary focus in life.
Could you explain a project that you are directly (or even indirectly) working on now (or recently or soon) that excites you?
We’re working on a project to bring better telecommunication to courses and, in the process, making a graduate program multisite.
We recognized that LC faculty and students were expending too many resources (e.g., time, transportation costs, fuel) coming and going to our campus for a particular graduate program. With different teaching pedagogies and good telecom, we will reduce time for both students and faculty (who were all traveling regularly) on top of reducing economic and environmental impacts. As a direct consequence, we can open more sites to offer LaGrange’s renowned graduate program.
This effort was truly campuswide. The director of the particular graduate program, members of IT, other constituencies across campus that rely on telecom, the business office, etc., all worked together to make a decision on use of the product—I just got to serve as a project manager. What made this so exciting was that we took a program that we already offered, coupled it with already existing technology and limitlessly expanded our influence.
What has surprised you most about learning and working in CS?
Perhaps what has surprised me most is how my colleagues (in CS/math/physics/engineering) often don’t learn how to address scenarios in working relationships. If we learn to conduct ourselves in a way that is wiser than what people expect of us, we often hear people say “you’re the most normal mathematicians I’ve ever met!” That’s when we know we have successfully coupled good people skills with our aptitude for problem-solving.
What advice would you give students who want to follow in your footsteps?
- Learn your craft like it’s a hobby, not like it’s a job. When you do this, you force yourself to think bigger than just one task; instead, you see things from the vantage point of an end product. Also, it’s more enjoyable.
- Learn to write well with proper grammar (I’m still learning) in a variety of styles (including, but not limited to, technical writing). People will judge you for the duration of your career based upon one poorly written piece of communique. If there was once piece of advice I wish I had received (more often), it would have been this one.
- Be respectful of those in charge but also offer your own well-thought out opinions. If you’re in the CS field, you’re probably fairly intelligent and, unless explicitly stated, you were probably not hired to be an automaton.
- Use a calendar or task list. There are too many important things in your life (besides work) to try to keep all of it in your head.
Stepping back, what do you think is the most exciting recent or upcoming development in your field?
The big data revolution, hands down, is the most amazing thing to recently happen in higher education. Just as Google and Facebook analyze things we do online to their own ends, we’re using information as common as card swipes to monitor student movement and ascertain the likelihood of retention. This helps us help students succeed.
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