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Working at CSU

Just kidding - seriously

January 19, 2011
by Paul Miller

Computer science Professor Anton Willem Bohm considers himself a ham. For all his joshing in the classroom and elsewhere, he's also quite serious about teaching students and helping them succeed.

A life in the binary world

As an innovator without an “off” switch, Bohm recently helped Adam Campfield, a junior in computer science who is blind, in a class on data structures.

“I had him in a class called Object-Oriented Problem Solving,” says Bohm, who’s better known as Wim. “He was fantastic. It was so amazing how brave he was.

“The main problem was visualization. When I drew on the board, he obviously couldn’t see it, so my challenge was turning it into something tactile. Initially I made shapes with cardboard and small arrows and such things, but that didn’t work very well. Adam said, ‘Why don’t I bring my magnetic set?’

“When he brought it in, I could translate what I was doing on a whiteboard to the magnetic pieces on a table.” He could touch it, visualize it. We’d play games with each other – I’d remove certain parts of a list, and that would teach him that he had to keep a pointer to that structure. Otherwise, he’d lose track.”

“Wim's desire to make sure his students actually learn the material, as well as doing well on the tests – plus his willingness to explore new ways of teaching as he did with me – is what shapes his character and brings out teaching excellence,” Campfield says.

Teaching dynamo

"Wim is very dynamic in the classroom,” says Michelle Strout, assistant professor of computer science. “He’s excited about the material and gets students excited about it. He isn’t rigid in his teaching style, so if he isn’t getting traction with the students, he’ll switch to something else.”

The only thing this rumpled professor enjoys more than teaching is computers – even though he grew up in what he calls a theatrical family.

Bohm, who joined CSU in 1990, was born July 4, 1948, in Rotterdam, Holland. His father, Piet (who is deceased), was an opera singer, and his 93-year-old mother, Antoinette, was a professional pianist.

“I grew up more or less in the entertainment business,” Bohm says. “Our household was great fun. My parents challenged us to do all kinds of interesting stuff. My mother had French Day, German Day, and English Day, when we’d speak only those languages at home. My sister, Puck, was very much into turning the house into a theater. She now has a number of old houses that she restores in Holland, some dating to the 1600s.”

Bohm’s brother, Hans, “a fantastic chess player, an International Master,” is a TV personality in Holland.

Code writer

After finishing his master’s and Ph.D. in computer science in Holland, Bohm took his restless intellect and curiosity around the world, starting in Manchester, England, in 1984.

“One of my Ph.D. examiners there was working on an interesting computer and asked me to join a team that was writing a compiler.” From that beginning, Bohm’s career specialty became compilers, which are computer programs that transform source code into another target language. He’s been teaching such language and other computer science topics for 40 years here and abroad.

In the 1980s, as parallel computing – a complex method of simultaneous, or concurrent, calculation – was being developed, Bohm visited MIT and national labs at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos in the United States and facilities in Japan and Australia to pursue research. He also visited CSU in 1990 because Rod Oldehoeft, who was chair of the department, was doing research in the same area that had immersed Bohm in Manchester.

“From day one, I really liked it here. Definitely the nicest group of people I’d ever been associated with. Rod gave me his old beat-up VW van, sent me into the mountains, and told me to gallivant around for a while. I just loved it.”

He also liked the climate. “For a long time I enjoyed living in England, but the economy was bad and the weather got on my nerves. I’m from Holland where it’s raining three-fourths of the time, then I went to Manchester where it rained seven-eighths of the time. I wanted to find some sunshine. Enough was enough.”

Gadgeteering

Bohm has few frustrations, but admits that students who aren’t trying or don’t manage their time correctly can make him pull his hair.

“It’s sad to see kids who could really do great work because they’re smart enough but just can’t seem to organize themselves,” he says. “You meet with them and do what you can to suggest alternatives to help them succeed.”

Students haven’t changed all that much over the years, Bohm says, but they do like gadgets that whittle considerable time from their studies.

“Students are more distracted these days, it seems. Society tends to require 10 toys in your pockets, otherwise you’re not worthy.

“I have a beat-up cell phone, and that’s about it. I guess it can take pictures, I don’t care. If I can phone my wife, and she can call me, I’m happy.”

Wim Bohm’s enthusiasm and creativity as a teacher caught the attention of the Board of Governors of the CSU System, which awarded him an Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award in April 2010.

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This story originally appeared in the Winter 2010-11 issue of Colorado State Magazine.