Faculty Spotlight: Medha Sarkar, Computer Science

Faculty Spotlight: Medha Sarkar, Computer Science

Photo of Dr. Medha Sarkar, professor of Computer Science at MTSU, standing in front of a large window in a hallway in the Kirksey Old Main building on the MTSU campus.

Today, the Student Voice is hanging out with Dr. Medha Sarkar of the Computer Science department. She’s filling us in on changes in the software industry, her students’ real-life programming experience, and her secret Yahoo email!  

Thanks for chatting with us today! Can you tell us a little bit about your educational background? 

My education was a combination of influences from the U.S., India, and Canada. My dad came to the U.S. as a grad student, so I went to school here for a while; then when he finished, we went back to India. I finished my studies there and got a bachelor’s and master’s in computer applications from a university in India. Then I applied to Queens University in Canada, and got another master’s and a Ph.D. from there. My research focus was programming languages and graph grammars.

When did you choose computer science as your field of study?

I had actually planned on majoring in physics when I first started college. It was my true love at the time. But I was told that the university was starting a new program called computer science and that students were encouraged to take a look at it. So I took my first programming class, and that was it, I just fell in love with it, so I switched my major from physics to computer science.

How has programming changed from when you were first introduced to it to the way that you teach it now?

It’s changed so much since the late 80’s and early 90’s when I started computer science. The systems were so different; there was no object-oriented programming and not many tools that could help us program. We were all made to use punch-cards, even though we didn’t really have to, just so that we would appreciate that process. The computers that we used were small Radio Shack computers, and there were only two in the whole lab for 15 students to use, so we had to take turns. We each only got two hours per week to work on the computers. I never imagined that I would have a computer at home or Internet access. Even our college didn’t have access to the Internet; it came after I graduated! But computer science is always changing, so when I teach my students, I have to learn what’s new out there because they’re working with all these new tools and new ideas that we were never taught when I was in school.

So you’re constantly educating yourself so that you can educate your students effectively. 

Exactly. For example, I’m giving away my age a little, but I do remember when Yahoo was new! It first came out when I was doing my second master’s degree in Canada, and everybody in my lab was so excited. We were like “Oh wow, there’s this new thing called the Yahoo search engine!” And now nobody even uses the Yahoo search engine because we’ve got Google, which is far more advanced. I mean that’s how far we’ve come. I actually still have a Yahoo email address, but I try not to use it; I don’t want to be known as that person! (Laughs).

Would a programming class be useful for students across different kinds of majors? 

Yes, absolutely. I don’t think any major is immune to needing some sort of coding skills, even if it’s just putting information into an Excel sheet. I think it’s good for every student to take at least one class in programming to figure out how computers really work, and to learn the process of writing a program. It teaches you to think in a sequential and logical way. If you want a computer to do something, you have to give it very simple step-by-step instructions, and I think that’s a great way to approach any problem. Once you write out the steps of the process, things become much more clear.

You’re the coordinator for the Real World Projects program; can you talk a little about the program and its goals?

Yes! The Real World Projects program is part of one of the classes I teach at MTSU, software engineering. It’s an undergraduate and graduate class, a 4000/5000 level. What I do is, I have a project, and students try to understand the project and figure out how to develop the software that the project needs, and we go through the software development lifecycle. When I first started teaching this class, we’d just use a case study for the project as an academic exercise, and I would pretend to be their client. Then we decided to contact software companies in the area, and now they’re actually the real clients for our students! Now we’ll have five or six clients come in and explain the projects that they have, and the students get to request the projects that they’d like to work on, and throughout the semester they work in teams with their client. I teach them the theory aspect, and then they work out the practical issues to be able to give their client a finished product at the end of the semester. It teaches them how to interact with real clients, and how to pick up different skills that we may not have taught them yet, in order to finish the project. They do get a little stressed in the beginning because it means a huge learning curve, but I tell them that’s okay; when I grade it, I take into consideration how hard the students have worked. And sometimes clients come in with huge projects, so we may scale it down to something that the students can achieve. In the end, it’s an amazing opportunity for students to build their portfolios and have the confidence to tackle their new jobs upon graduation.

Having been an international student yourself, what advice do you have for current international students?

I would tell them to take part in activities and learn the culture, and the only way to do that is to join different organizations and participate in programs on campus. Don’t be scared; experience all the different things happening around campus, because when you do that, you get to know the place and the people better. That’s the only way to do it. Just go in and take part in everything that the school has to offer.

Final question: what are some interesting things about yourself that your students might not know?

For one thing, I lived in Hawaii for three years before we moved to Nashville! My husband was an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii. People sometimes ask us, “Why did you leave?!” and you know, it’s great to vacation there, but Tennessee is really the better place to live. We love it here! I also really enjoying cooking. Whenever I’m stressed, cooking really makes me feel better. My sons say I make the best butter chicken!