Pioneer Spotlight: Donna Gavin

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Pioneer Spotlight
Donna Gavin
July 7, 2017

Donna Gavin, a senior lecturer in the computer science and software engineering program, always had a fascination for science. After spending her childhood in the North Side of Chicago, Illinois, and her teenage years in the South Side, Gavin received her bachelor’s degree in computer science from St. Xavier University in Chicago, and her master’s degree in computer information systems from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Upon graduation, she moved from Minnesota to Wisconsin to be closer to family—and the Cubs. Despite the initial fear of speaking in front of people, Gavin started teaching part time at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville in 1997, and found that she really enjoys teaching and interacting with students.

How did you initially become interested in computer science and software engineering?

When I was growing up, I was always fascinated with science. When “Star Wars: a New Hope” first came out in 1977, I was totally psyched to see it. I was hospitalized the week that it opened in the theaters, and when my mom came to visit me, she told me that she took my brothers and sisters to see it without me! As a child I read Scientific American, Astronomy, and had a subscription to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. I went to an inner city public high school on the South Side of Chicago, and once a week I left school early to commute downtown to take an astronomy class at the Alder Planetarium. I decided that I wanted to be an astrophysicist. I attended the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago as a physics major for two years. As a part of my physics core requirement, I took programming classes in Fortran and Pascal. As I was struggling with thermodynamics, I found that programming came very easily for me. I would escape to the computer lab to avoid doing my physics homework! I took that as a sign, so I changed my major to computer science.

People often don’t understand the similarities and differences between computer science and software engineering. How would you compare and contrast the two?

The two share many of the same core courses in our curriculum. Computer science is the theory and practice involved in the feasibility, design, development, implementation, testing and evaluation of every aspect of computing. Software engineering is engineering principles applied to software systems. It focuses on embedded systems, which can be found in many devices such as kitchen appliances, cars and aviation. Software engineering is often concerned with life-critical software, such as airline avionics, pacemakers, defibrillators and medical imaging such as MRIs. Both computer science and software engineering are sciences of problem solving efficiently, effectively and ethically.

In addition to lecturing in the classroom, you’re also part of the distance education program. How is this different than typical classroom lecturing?

Distance education is a different dynamic. It’s asynchronous. You don’t have the togetherness that you would have with a campus classroom, so you need to build a class-like setting and a comradery through discussions and other tools. Our CSSE department has recently collaborated with several other UW System schools to offer an applied computing program. It is a completely online degree completion program, where you can earn a Bachelor of Science in computer science. I am looking forward to contributing to that program.

What is the most difficult aspect of your profession? 

Computer science is not a static field. There are new programming languages being developed all of the time. Our curriculum is constantly changing to adapt to this changing field. I took an online class this past spring and learned Python, so that I can teach Python this fall. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, it’s just a dynamic field. 

What is the most rewarding part of your job? 

The most rewarding part of my job is connecting with students. Everyone has a story, and I really enjoy discovering what their story is. I think my strength is learning a student’s history and struggles, and then helping them develop a way of coping with it and/or overcoming it. It is also very rewarding to see the “Ah-hah!” moment – the moment when the light bulb goes on, when a student finally understands a more difficult programming concept, something they’ve been struggling with that finally becomes clear.

I am currently organizing a Girls Who Code Club starting this fall. This club is free, and will meet once a week after school. It will consist of sixth through 12th grade girls from this area. The purpose of the club is to inspire, educate and equip young women with the computing skills and resources to pursue opportunities in computing fields. It will be a fun way to connect with the girls and teach them how to code.


Interview conducted by Amanda Bertolozzi, Writer/Editor, Communications. To nominate someone for the Pioneer Spotlight, contact


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