Class of 2021: Computer science graduate Allyson Senger accelerates path to teaching
From a very young age, Allyson Senger has always enjoyed logic. She loved solving the logic puzzle books she received as a kid in Mount Sidney, Virginia. Her great uncle was known for giving her math brain teasers at family gatherings, where she would think about them all night and come back with her solutions.
Later in high school, through her involvement in the commonwealth’s Governor’s School program, she took her first computer science class. It was also where she learned how to solve a Rubik's Cube and do Einstein’s logic puzzles. She credits that experience for her current passion for technology.
Fast forward to today.
Senger works with Linux operating systems, which allow her the ability to completely delete the operating system and brick the computer.
“That might sound terrifying, but being able to access that lower level of a computer was something I had never seen before entering the computer science program here,” said Senger, who will graduate at the end of this semester from Virginia Tech with both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science. She was able to accomplish this through the five-year accelerated bachelor’s/master’s program in the Department of Computer Science.
Senger said that, after coming back to Java after Linux, she was able to appreciate the work it did without her even having to ask. “Java [and other high-level languages] have made programming a lot more accessible and easier for people to learn without having to work with a computer their entire lives,” she said. “I think that is really important if we want to have a more diverse field of computer scientists.”
As a member of the accelerated program, Senger began taking graduate classes before she completed her undergraduate degree. When she received her bachelor of science diploma in spring 2020, she already had three graduate-level courses under her belt.
As she prepares to participate in her first in-person commencement, Senger will be the third in her family to graduate from Virginia Tech, following her father and grandfather, both of whom also earned engineering degrees.
“I knew when I became interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) that I wanted to come study at Virginia Tech,” she said. “The accelerated program allowed me to explore my interests earlier in my academic career. I finished my bachelor's degree in three years, so I got to start researching at the age of a typical college junior. I was able to find out my interests in education and teaching in the same timeframe it would usually have taken to complete an undergraduate degree."
Senger also had a special opportunity to be a part of the New Horizon Graduate Scholars program, a nomination she received from the Department of Computer Science. Administered by the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity in the College of Engineering, the program supports and enhances diversity among Virginia Tech’s graduate student population. The New Horizon community is provided with resources and opportunities, including monthly professional development workshops, lunches and dinners with invited guest speakers from industry and academia, and venues to participate in critical reading and writing groups, all of which strengthen participants' academic careers while at Virginia Tech.
For Senger, being in this environment gave her opportunities to interact with other computer science graduate students. It also solidified her love for teaching and gave her a special opportunity to develop her research even more, as she was able to base her research on automated grader research that had been conducted by her professor, Stephen Edwards, who also serves as associate department head for undergraduate studies.
Senger’s research focuses on digital education in computer science, which includes using a static analysis tool that finds errors in students’ computer code. The messages that it provides are then taken and rewritten by Senger to help the novice programmers learn from their mistakes.
The impact of her research has sparked real-world applications, as it is currently being used in all of the Java programming classes at Virginia Tech.
As Senger labored over debugging lines of code, she spent equal hours playing the mellophone in Virginia Tech’s Marching Virginians. “Being a part of the Marching Virginians helped me learn early in my academic career how to structure my time well and balance academics with extracurricular activities,” she said.
Looking back, Senger said that many strong mentors shaped her time at Virginia Tech, including several through middle and high school who encouraged her interest in STEM. She encountered this same support system with computer science professors Margaret Ellis and Edwards, both of whom served as role models.
“Allyson is detail-oriented and disciplined, but also personable, so working with her is highly productive and enjoyable,” said Ellis, who had Senger as one of her teaching assistants.
Senger plans to pursue teaching after she graduates, with sights on serving as an adjunct in the spring or summer. After that, she hopes to land an instructor position, possibly even at Virginia Tech. She’s particularly interested in teaching introductory programming courses and has not ruled out a potential doctoral degree in the future.
“I have just always really liked teaching people,” Senger said. “I love the novice side of things and getting things to click for people when they are just starting out.”
Written by Diana Ofori-Manu, a student intern with the Department of Computer Science