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Rock Starr Computer Geek

Chris Starr, computer science department chair

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Chris Starr is a self-proclaimed computer geek.

Ask him about programming and his eyes light up like a 27-inch LED monitor. He begins to talk like he’s just had five cups of coffee, using all sorts of really strange words like Ubuntu and Linux. He’s so energetic, you can’t help but be like, “Wow,” before adding, “You know I have absolutely no idea what any of that means, right?”

For the past 24 years, Starr has taught computer science at the College. Today, he serves as the department’s chair. But unlike the mental image that probably comes to mind when someone says, “computer science professor,” Starr is nicely dressed, well coiffed and tan from his weekends sailing a 32-foot Pearson Sabbatical around the Charleston Harbor.

A typical workday for the 50-year-old father of four girls consists of meetings with students and faculty, in-depth work on research papers and, of course, teaching class. Well, at least when he’s not changing the way the world teaches computing.

Getting Reprogrammed

Born in Clemson, S.C., Starr grew up in the pre-personal computer era. As a result, he spent much of his youth reading science fiction novels and watching Star Trek.

“Back then, I couldn’t wait to get home from school and do homework while I watched Lost in Space,” he says.

Against all odds, he still managed to meet a woman who would follow him off to college and eventually settle down and start a family with him.

After graduating from the College with a degree in mathematics, Starr began medical school at the Medical University of South Carolina. It didn’t take long for him to discover that tending to sick people wasn’t his thing.

“I got into that anatomy lab and realized I wanted to be digital and not touch people,” he says.

So he switched from the university’s M.D. program to its Ph.D. program, focusing on mathematics and medicine.

“Studying medical problems from a mathematical perspective was the perfect solution,” he says. “That was the rage for me.”

Starr began working on a computer program to help doctors diagnose patients based on symptoms. That project would lead to his next big thing: devising a way to eliminate noise (places where the picture isn’t as clear) in images taken of the heart. In 1987, he came up with the idea to take two pictures simultaneously and then overlay the images to create one 3-dimensional image. If that idea sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it’s the very principle today’s modern MRI machines utilize. Now, if you’d think an idea like that would make you rich beyond your wildest dreams, you’re absolutely correct.

“I learned a valuable lesson from the experience though,” he says with a wry smile, before adding, “Get a patent.”

It was around this time that Starr and his wife had their first child, and so – in an effort to help pay for all the many things little kids need – he decided to do a little teaching on the side.

A few months later, Starr had a couple of classes under his belt, and the College’s then-fledgling computer science department asked him to teach full time.

It was love at first C prompt.

Changing the Code

During Starr’s time with the College, more than 500 students have graduated with computer science degrees. But his legacy has less to do with how many programmers he’s sent into the working world and more to do with the example he sets.

For instance, Starr spends much of his free time coming up with ways to better entice kids to learn how to program computers.

“It doesn’t do them any good to teach them how to use a bunch of programs like Microsoft Word, because we’re only preparing them for the life of those programs,” he points out.

Instead, he believes, teachers need to show kids how these programs run and are put together. But rather than doing this in a nuts-and-bolts way, focusing entirely on the behind-the-scenes stuff, he says it should be incorporated into things like gaming and robotics classes.

Charleston-area private school Porter-Gaud was so impressed with the way Starr made college computer learning fun that they tapped his brain to come up with a high school–level curriculum that would get kids started even earlier.

After that, Google got on board. They loved his methods so much that they tossed some money the College’s way so that they could share those methods with high school teachers across the nation.

But he’s not one to rest on his laurels. In fact, one of the cornerstones of how he teaches computer science has to do with his willingness to adapt his style to whatever the in-thing is. Right now it’s mobile phone apps. Tomorrow? Who knows. But you can be sure, whatever it is, it’ll be part of the curriculum.

He smiles when he says: “It’s fortunate computer science changes a lot, or I would get really bored.”

Logging Out

It’s almost 7 p.m. on a Friday evening and Starr looks up from his office computer to explain that he isn’t normally at work this late. In the background, the faint hum of a fish tank fills the room. It’s fitting that the man who doesn’t take himself too seriously has two clownfish swimming around on the shelf behind his desk. They serve as a subtle reminder of the balance Starr strives to maintain in his life: Computers are cool, but family comes first.

Underscoring that priority is the fact that Starr tries to avoid e-mail altogether on the weekends, an impressive feat for a regular person, much less a man who makes his living working with computers. But it’s something he’s glad to do because it keeps his focus right where he wants it: at home. In a typical weekend, he’ll eat dinner with the girls, go to one of their musical concerts or just hang out. In fact, he does just about everything with his family. Except sail. That’s the one thing the ladies in his house don’t quite share a passion for.

“Yep. It’s just me and the dog out there,” he says, referring to the only other male in the house, a small terrier mix named Elliott. “But that’s OK. It’s kind of nice every once in a while to just hang with the guys.”

– Bryce Donovan ’98