ECS Celebrates 25 Years as a School and a Half-century of Pioneers and Principles

Underneath every milestone in the School of Engineering and Computer Science's (ECS) 25-year history lies a foundation of principles laid decades beforehand by a few hearty pioneers.

ECS Celebrates 25 Years as a School and a Half-century of Pioneers and Principles

For nearly 50 years, computer science and engineering has had a presence on Baylor campus. And no matter the time period or technology of the day, ECS faculty and staff have held fast to two key values: 1) the relentless pursuit of solving problems that have never been solved before; and 2) the earnest equipping of students to bring hope to the world in hands-on, tangible ways unique to these two disciplines.

25th Anniversary
THE EARLY YEARS: FOUNDING FATHERS & BUILDING A CULTURE TO LAST

When Don Gaitros, PhD, came to Baylor as its first computer science faculty member in the early 70s, he, along with his students, had to type up their programs on ticker tape to be fed into the one computer. Yes, one shared computer. For the whole university. 

“Students would have to take turns running their programs,” Gaitros recalled, “They would sign up for a time on a certain day, feed the ticker tape into the computer, wait for the information to come back, and then print it out.”

It was a far cry from the 15 seconds computer science students might wait today when checking the code they’ve written on personal laptops. The technological equipment and processes of the time may have been plodding, but under the leadership of Gaitros, who’d left the space program to build something new at Baylor, Baylor’s computer science program was about to blast off and rocket along at a pace no one could have predicted. 

Only three years after Gaitros’ arrival at Baylor in 1973, Baylor’s first computer science student graduated. Six years later, a team of undergraduate students from the fledgling department won a national contest sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). The program was on the map.

“By the time I got to Baylor, the computer science program was already shaping up to be one of the most outstanding programs of its kind,” James Bargainer, PhD, said of his arrival at Baylor in 1979. Much like Gaitros with computer science, Bargainer had been brought in to develop an engineering program at Baylor from scratch. And in 1980, the two programs came together to form the Department of Engineering and Computer Science with Bargainer serving as department chair, and Gaitros continuing to direct the development of the computer science arm. 

“We knew there was nothing here when we came. In fact, my first year at Baylor I taught physics courses. There were no engineering students, no labs, and no engineering courses to teach,” Bargainer remembered. “We put the programs together from the bottom up. Thankfully, Baylor allowed us to start small and grow from there.”

Bargainer and Gaitros were building more than curriculums and laboratories for their respective disciplines in those formative years. Hire by hire, they were also recruiting key faculty members with a passion for teaching and a deep care for students and each other, cultivating a rare, family-like culture that’s still felt today.

Bill Booth, PhD, a senior lecturer in computer science at Baylor today, remembers the first time he experienced the department’s caring environment when he was a graduate student. “I had quit my job to pursue a master’s degree in computer science full-time. My wife was working, and here I was at the graduate student welcome picnic with my three-month-old daughter in tow,” Booth recollected. “I had barely stepped out of my truck, before Vicki Gaitros, Don’s wife, came up and took the baby in her arms so I could meet everyone. That’s just the kind of place it was from the beginning.”

HOMECOMING:  A NEW BUILDING AND A NEW SCHOOL 

In the late 80s, ECS gained much greater visibility on Baylor’s campus and among national engineering and computer science programs. But even in the excitement of Baylor breaking ground for ECS to have its own facility on campus, the department’s focus continued to remain on how to best equip students for success in their respective fields. In 1988, two significant things happened on the same day: the Department of ECS moved into its new home, the Robert M. and Louise Rogers Engineering and Computer Science Building, and the engineering program gained accreditation by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology.

Robert M. and Louise Rogers Engineering and Computer Science Building
Robert M. and Louise Rogers Engineering and Computer Science Building as construction nears completion in 1988.

“What a great day that was!” Bargainer reflected. “Suddenly we had this new building that was state of the art, and we had the all-important accreditation that we needed for our engineering graduates to be registered professional engineers in the state and, thus, viable in the job market.”

Seven years later, the department became the School of Engineering and Computer Science with Bargainer appointed as the first dean. That same year the Baylor engineering program was the only one in Texas to accomplish a 100% pass rate on the State Board's Fundamentals of Engineering Exam. Not only was visibility rising for Baylor ECS, but so was the caliber of students it was attracting and the commitment to building an academic environment where those students could flourish—even if the “building” methods were different than Baylor had ever done before.

North Village
North Village Residential Community
A TRANSFORMED ENVIRONMENT FOR A TRANSFORMATIVE EDUCATION

ECS had long been known for having some of the most strenuous and demanding programming on campus when Ben Kelley, PhD, became dean in 1998 after Bargainer’s retirement. In an effort to create a more holistic support structure for ECS students, Kelley began brainstorming with Campus Living and Learning on how to create a discipline-specific community living experience for ECS students. And when the North Village Residential Community was completed in 2004, it was the first new campus residence hall at Baylor in more than 40 years. 

“We knew that students in rigorous majors do better when they’re together,” Kelley said. “And we knew that students who remain on campus after their freshman year stay more connected to the University and retain more of what they’re learning.”

That was certainly true for Patrick Jaeckle, BS ’18, who met what he calls his “core group of engineering friends” while living in an ECS residential community at Baylor. “There were seven of us living on the same floor who became close. It helped a lot to have fellow engineering students to stay up late and study with when needed,” Jaeckle, now a field engineer at Weatherford, said. “Even though we've graduated, we try to see each at least once a year and we have a group chat that’s still constant.”

“I also still have lunch with my former professors whenever I come through Waco,” he added. “Being able to form those relationships with faculty as a student and not just be a number is something I continue to love about that community.” 

BUV Uganda
Baylor Basic Utility Vehicle team in Uganda.
EDUCATION & SERVICE, WHERE IT ALL COMES TOGETHER

As Baylor’s vision in the early 2000s turned toward the exciting yet ambitious goal of reaching Tier 1 status, the newly established School of ECS kept pace with a focus on developing graduate level programming while continuing to expand enrichment opportunities for undergraduates. There was no doubt that equipping students at both levels with rich international experiences would be key in the days ahead.

Indeed, today ECS faculty have established regular study abroad opportunities with universities Czech Republic, Ireland and, most recently, Spain. But perhaps no one could have truly predicted the synergistic effect of combining these two problem-solving disciplines with mission-driven service opportunities overseas.

For Jaeckle, volunteering with Baylor BUV, a humanitarian organization for undergraduate engineering students, was easily the paramount of his time at Baylor. Baylor BUV utilizes classroom knowledge and technical training to construct Basic Utility Vehicles (BUVs) for use in developing countries. Jaeckle’s work with the group spanned his sophomore, junior and senior years, and culminated in a trip to Uganda one day after his graduation.

The trip to Uganda was life-changing,” Jaeckle reflected. “We built a BUV from scratch in eight days and were simultaneously teaching students at a Ugandan trade school how to construct BUVs on their own to benefit their communities. They were working so hard alongside us, and the excitement on their faces when we finished and the vehicle was operational is just something I’ll never forget.”

“It was the first time I had used my engineering knowledge to help someone else in a tangible, sustainable way,” he added. “That was powerful.”

Experiencing that dynamic of combining a newly acquired professional skill set with meaningful acts of service doesn’t require an overseas trip though. For Meghan Bibb, a senior computer science student, it has looked like volunteering right outside of Baylor’s campus in the Waco community. 

While Bibb has had many incredible opportunities as a student — she landed two internships with Google before her senior year — volunteering with the student-led organization Computing for Compassion (C4C) has been one of her favorite highlights. Through Ignite CS, one facet of C4C, Bibb has gone into local middle schools to educate, empower, and inspire young students around computer science and STEM.

“It’s really rewarding to see a concept ‘click’ when the kids learn something new or have new ideas,” Bibb said. “And as one of few women in some of my own computer science classes at Baylor, I love when I see girls get excited about computer science at a young age.”

Though service has always been a personal value for Bibb, the opportunity to inspire young girls toward careers in STEM is especially meaningful because of the female mentorship she has received in her own education at Baylor.

“It’s meant a lot to me to have Cindy Fry not only as a computer science professor but also as a friend and mentor. Being able to call on her just to check in or for career advice has given me a lot of confidence and made me feel more empowered throughout my studies at Baylor,” Bibb, whose sights are set on a career in the Silicon Valley, reflected. “When I see women in the workplace or in academics who have achieved great things, it helps motivate me to try to do great things too.”

It’s encouraging and motivating feedback for ECS at Baylor, which now boasts a student population that is 26 percent female, six percent higher than the national average. Room to grow, but on the right track.

CALLED TO EXCELLENCE: THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT 

“It was a significant milestone in 2017 that our first two PhDs in mechanical engineering were both females,” Dennis O’Neal, PhD, dean of engineering and computer science, said. “When I came to Baylor in 2012 and sat down with the department chairs, one of the key things we wanted to do was diversify our faculty to better reflect and serve as role models for our student population. We’re making great strides toward that goal.”

In line with Baylor’s vision to reach R1 status, part of that diversification is also about bringing in faculty who are doing innovative research on a national and international scale. But being a renowned researcher isn’t enough to be the right fit for ESC faculty at Baylor. Like those early years with Gaitros and Bargainer, caring deeply about teaching and equipping students as servant-leaders in their fields is non-negotiable.

O’Neal credits that distinct combination with drawing him to Baylor.

“Our faculty are committed to building up our research capabilities and our graduate programs,” said O’Neal, who has seen the number of ECS PhD students grow from 1 t0 nearly 70 in the past 10 years. “But they’re equally committed to improving the quality of the undergraduate experience. And integrating it all, is our Christian mission.”

“Our graduates are called to be salt and light in all aspects of society — from top-tier research labs to Washington, D.C., to Google,” he added. “And that means we’re called to give them a top education so they can get there.”

After nearly half a century on Baylor’s campus, computer science and engineering programming has grown, changed, evolved and excelled in ways that have defied prediction. But the core values guiding Baylor’s School of Engineering and Computer Science into the future have never wavered.