IS professional wins Chancellor’s Award with personality, heart
Brian Lawton expects that his students will take the skills he teaches and surpass him. During an interview, he affected his best Darth Vader voice and summed up this desire in a “Star Wars” quote.
“I want students to approach me later on and confidently say ‘When last we met Obi-Wan, I was but the apprentice, but now I am the master,’” Lawton says.
Since becoming a senior lecturer at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 2001, Lawton has made the abstract and difficult aspects of computer programming palatable and engaging to students.
With his knack for building networks for both mainframes and people, he has founded the Information Systems Programming Club which has sponsored and hosted several technology events, including the Global Game Jam, Information Systems Career Conference and Women’s Hackathon.
Lawton earned both a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in management information systems from UMSL and has put them to good use over the last 20 years. He has served as a business analyst, systems architect, information technology planner and software developer for companies such as Monsanto, Emerson and Citigroup. His varied background has enabled him to challenge students with real-world questions and projects to foster critical thinking and prepare them for careers.
“Dexterity in programming and insight into technology careers is what we’re teaching, but it doesn’t always have to be dry,” Lawton says. “It can be about culture and some of the neat things technology allows us to do. I use magazines like Wired and science fiction movies like ‘Tron’ to illustrate the joy and imagination behind technology.”
After working with Lawton for a few semesters, business and technology students have started internships and careers with industry leaders such as Boeing, MasterCard and Ameren. And the relationships Lawton fosters with students are not quickly forgotten.
“I still remember the first night of my Object Oriented Programming I class,” Business sophomore Katherine Bennett writes in a nomination letter. “I was super nervous because I had never programmed before in my life. Professor Lawton walked in and started cracking jokes to lighten the mood, and soon I was laughing right along. He made what could be a boring subject fun.”
In another nomination letter, graduate student Jujian Chen describes Lawton as much more than a teacher.
“Instead of simply calling him a teacher,” he said. “I’d rather recognize him as a great educator, mentor, and friend. He not only guided me in class, but also gave me career advice.”
And Aaron Hinton, a business sophomore, credits Lawton with helping him score a high-profile NASCAR Diversity Internship.
“My longtime dream of working in the motor sports industry would not have been possible if it wasn’t for my UMSL education and professors like him,” Hinton writes.
Lawton’s enthusiasm, technology industry experience and mentorship have netted him the 2015 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence to a Part-Time Faculty Member, which he’ll receive during the annual State of the University Address on Sept. 16 in the J.C. Penney Building at UMSL.
Information Systems department chair Dinesh A. Mirchandani also attests to the positive effects of Lawton’s teaching.
“Adding Brian to the faculty has been among the best decisions of the department,” Mirchandani writes in a recommendation letter, “impacting the careers of countless students.”
Lawton doesn’t expect his students to become instant technology experts. He only expects them to practice with a good nature and open mind – the same kind of outlook Lawton brings to teaching in the classroom.
“It is a student’s attitude toward how he will work at learning newfound skills that is the most important factor for success,” Lawton says. “The UMSL students I’ve worked with all show a great work ethic, and I tell them, if you’re frustrated, that’s good — it’s means you’re learning. Keep applying pressure, and you’ll break through.”
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