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Faculty Faces - Dr. Gabe Ferrer

The Lego-like building blocks on his desk are an item from an unrequited childhood passion for not simply playing but building and programming robots.

"I've been interested in programming robots since I was a kid," said Ferrer, who grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla., with his mother, a native of Puerto Rico, a high school teacher and later a principal and superintendent, and his father, an electrical engineer, who is from Cuba.

"But I didn't get much of a chance to work on robots until graduate school," he said.

Ferrer received his bachelor's degree in computer science in 1994 from Rice University in Houston, Texas, where he got a taste of robotics work as an intern with a group affiliated with NASA Johnson Space Center.

He completed his doctorate in 2002 from the University of Virginia, where he also met his wife Karen, who completed her doctorate in material science and now works as an adjunct professor in the physics department at Hendrix and takes care of the couple's three - soon to be four - children.

A research group at UVA had used a robot head to study the role of computer vision to make decisions about action.

"I saw a demonstration and knew it was the kind of thing I wanted to do," said Ferrer, who worked on a group that put together the school's first mobile robot. "It all took off from there."

"The main challenge in programming robots is that you have data coming from sensors … Based on the data, how can give the robot directions to achieve certain goals," he said. "The human brain can process massive information from the environment extraordinarily quickly, but with a robot, detached from that context, you have to break information into pieces and instruct the computer in the most exact way."

Ferrer joined the Hendrix faculty in 2002. He is now an associate professor and chair of the mathematics and computer science department.

"A lot of why I was interested in coming to a school like Hendrix is because I wanted to teach small classes," he said. "As a graduate student I did a lot of work as a teaching assistant, assisting professors who were lecturing to classes with 400 students, and I realized that was not what I wanted to do professionally."

"But working with students, I realized teaching was a profession for which I was ideally suited because I found I had a real knack for explaining hard concepts to students on a one-on-one basis," he said. "As a result, I found teaching was a good use of my talents."

When he first came to Hendrix, Ferrer comprised half of the computer science program, along with math professor Dr. Dwayne Collins. Two years later, the college hired Dr. Carl Burch.

"It was great because, with Carl, we hired someone extraordinarily talented who was about my age and is essentially a peer," he said. "Together the three of us have really built an amazing program and done some amazing things."

"At a small college with six to eight computer science majors each year, you get to know the students and their talents and dispositions very well," said Ferrer, who stays in touch with many former students. "I see myself as a resource for whatever they happen to need. That is definitely something I've enjoyed very much."

"Our students have done all manner of interesting things," he said, naming graduates who have gone on to become software developers or gone to graduate school in computer science and are now professors.

Some students take a little different path, including library science, which is now heavily dependent on computer science. Two former students have gone to Hollywood. One went to film school and took advantage of his computer background to do animation work. The other graduate pursued acting. Another student, who is now an attorney, combined computer science and law to create a popular blog called "Law and the Multiverse," which explains how contemporary law applies to situations in comic books.

"We've developed a great broad-based computer science program for students," he said. "We're not just a factory for software developers. We're a factory for using computer science as a creative tool to achieve whatever goal someone happens to have."

Indulging his interest in robotics, Ferrer collaborated with physics professor Dr. Ann Wright to create a robotics course with no computer science or engineering pre-requisites. The course has been "a really big hit," attracting nearly 50 students a year in three sections.

"It's amazing to watch English, religion, and philosophy majors learn to build and program robots," he said.

Students have built and programmed robots that open doors and fire projectiles. One student team built a robot that could theoretically walk a dog, while another group built a flying robot airship, which they sailed through the atrium in the physical sciences building.

"That was pretty cool," he said. "It's really nice to be able to give students the technical skills to indulge their creativity."

Ferrer gets more in depth with robots in his Artificial Intelligence course, where students with more background in programming learn what it means to create simulated intelligence. Students experiment with robots that can learn on their own. They work on programs that enable robots to independently figure out how to drive down the hall without hitting things, to recognize hand writing, and to find areas that are lit and prefer them to dark areas. Students have also programmed robots to be unbeatable checkers players.

One of his favorite courses is Introduction to Computer Programming, which has "taken off" in popularity, with 60 to 70 students from many different majors enrolled in three sections of the course each year.

Students in the course tackle free-form assignments based on their interests, Ferrer said.

For example, an English major wrote a program that allowed a user to type in a quote from William Shakespeare and the computer would cite the play, the line, and the character who said the line.

"It's a really amazing experience as a teacher to attract students from all majors, and they're able to achieve even if they didn't think of themselves as technically savvy," he said. "So I get a lot of satisfaction."

Ferrer is also active in the college's new Study of the Mind program, collaborating with philosophy, psychology, and biology faculty to study the human mind from a multidisciplinary perspective.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for students with this interest," said Ferrer, who offers his expertise in artificial intelligence and robotics to the program, which is currently a minor and may ultimately be a major degree. "It's the sort of thing that Hendrix really facilitates, and I'm excited to see where this is going."

Students have also pursued engaged learning projects using computer science for Your Hendrix Odyssey: Engaging in Active Learning.

While senior computer science majors have always completed a senior research project, Odyssey has encouraged students to apply computer science in new and different ways beyond traditional research.

"Odyssey has been great in terms of the sheer creativity of the projects they're undertaking," said Ferrer.

One student received Odyssey credit in the "Service to the World" category for a project that developed software for people in situations with low budgets. Two students developed software for a rural police department in Arkansas.

"That's just one way I saw Odyssey and computer science make a difference," he said.

Odyssey has also funded a summer research assistant to support Ferrer and his ongoing research using "model checking" to develop software to help programmers automatically find errors.

Achieving his research goals feeds back into classes and strengthens the computers science program, he said.

"The college has been a source of great support and has done a lot to nurture the computer science program," he said. "We've grown a lot over the last several years, and I'd forecast that growth will continue." 

"I would like to see the good things we've started continue to mature, and I'd like to accelerate the trend in working with students in other majors and increasing the number of minors," said Ferrer, adding that a fourth faculty member would support the program's growth at some point too. "The growth in our program is fundamentally in our own hands."