Whether it's through his love for computer science, home brewing beer, or working with LEGO® bricks, it's clear that Ben Schafer, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Northern Iowa, is motivated by his urge to understand how things work.
Schafer began as an undergraduate student at UNI, where he double-majored in math and physics with an endorsement in teaching. Although he didn't major in computer science, Schafer had originally taken a few computer science courses in high school and was required to take some in college. It wasn't until he began teaching, however, that he really started to develop his interest in computer programming.
"While I was teaching, every summer I was going to Ames to develop educational multimedia software at Iowa State," said Schafer. At ISU, he was able to use his knowledge in computer science to help develop computer software at a time when the Internet was a relatively new concept. "I'm a firm believer that, as the years go on, everybody needs to know a little bit about making the computer be a tool for them."
One of the programs Schafer is most proud to be involved with is a summer workshop instructing local educators how to teach using Scratch, a programming environment from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that helps students gain a basic understanding of writing code for computers. "During the past three summers we've had more than 100 teachers from around the state of Iowa on campus and we've taught them Scratch, and we're slowly starting to see it getting used in schools," said Schafer.
Aside from teaching and developing computer programs, Schafer has also been brewing his own beer for about 10 years. "I always had an interest in beer beyond what you find in a typical bar in Iowa," noted Schafer. "I started home brewing because I wanted to try darker or hoppier beers."
Schafer is a member of the local home brewing club called the Cedar River Association of Zymurgy Enthusiasts (CRAZE), and has taught community courses on the subject.
One of the most unique things about this UNI professor, however, is his love for LEGO. As a kid, Schafer's dad always had the toys lying around the house. "When I was a kid my dad built a scale model of our house, brick for brick," remembered Schafer. "So I grew up around LEGO bricks and have always enjoyed building with them."
A couple of years ago, he was given the opportunity to search for ways to incorporate them into his classroom. In the past, he's done this by teaching students how to build LEGO MINDSTORMS® Education NXT robots, which started in his Artificial Intelligence class. Schafer has also worked with teens interested in LEGO building by offering workshops and camps during the summers. "It's a good way to get kids into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs," noted Schafer. He still works with the "toys" on a daily basis, and usually has an abundance of miniature LEGO robots sitting in his office.
Because of his work with LEGO in the classroom and community, Schafer was one of 25 people, among around 1,000 other applicants, who were invited to join the National LEGO Education Advisory Panel (LEAP). With other educators on the panel, he collaborates with LEGO Education to incorporate more STEM curriculum to K through 12 classrooms.
Through his many roles on and off-campus, Schafer continues to make every effort to share his interests with others. "I have never thought that my role as an educator ends at the classroom door. If I have experiences and skills that can be used to benefit the students and teachers in our community, then it's important to me to find opportunities to share those," said Schafer. "Being an educator means taking every opportunity available to better those around you."
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