Robert Mark Newburn
Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering Alumnus of the Year
Imagine, for a moment, being a college student without access to a smartphone or tablet or laptop. Or having discussions with fellow students about the latest advancements in “Hi-Fi” (not “Wi-Fi”). Or having to traipse to the library for every single shred of research needed to complete an assignment.
Robert Mark Newburn doesn’t need to imagine it. Because he lived it.
“Computers were still so rare when I started at UNLV that most people had only seen one on TV or in the movies,” Newburn says. “I like to tell today’s students that during my first semester on campus, ‘the UNLV computer’ was on the first floor of the Geosciences building — that’s the only computer [the university] had. Now everyone has at least one computer.”
Indeed, technology has come a long way in the four decades since Newburn received one of the first computer science degrees doled out by UNLV.
It’s a degree the Rancho High School grad never intended to pursue a — because at the time, such a degree wasn’t offered. In fact, computer science was nothing more than an emphasis within mathematics.
When Newburn made it through his freshman calculus class unscathed, he began to consider majoring in mathematics. He then took his first computer science course and was hooked — in part because he knew there was a strong chance he could parlay his knowledge into a lucrative job.
“I enjoyed the planning and logic of building computer programs while still getting to use my skills in mathematics,” Newburn says. “But I also believed it would help me get a good job — which, as someone who was working his way through college, I desperately needed.”
Thankfully for Newburn, by the time his senior year rolled around, UNLV had added computer science to its list of degree offerings.
Flash ahead to today, and Newburn has indeed enjoyed a long and successful career in the field. After working for several of the nation’s premier technology companies — often specializing in virtual reality — he launched his own small business. Based in Las Vegas, Vizics Inc. provides computer visualization consulting and software engineering services to a variety of clients, including government agencies.
While his professional achievements are undeniable, Newburn’s biggest impact in the field has come as a relentless education advocate.
Early in his career, Newburn came to realize that STEM education — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — was inextricably linked to job creation and economic growth. So in 2012, Newburn ran for and was elected to the Nevada State Board of Education.
He served on the board for a decade, never once missing a meeting. He helped author groundbreaking legislation that improved STEM education for K-12 students, added computer science as a core academic subject, and raised the bar for high school diploma requirements.
During Newburn’s time with the State Board of Education — which ended in January 2023 after three terms and serving as the board’s vice president — Nevada’s graduation rate improved from 63 percent to 82 percent.
Newburn also is a past member of the Nevada State Advisory Council on STEM and a current member of the UNLV College of Engineering and UNLV Department of Computer Science advisory boards.
What led you to choose UNLV rather than leaving the area to attend college?
Having grown up here, I was familiar with UNLV, and many of my friends were attending or planned to attend the university. And knowing I would have to work to pay my way through college, UNLV was the most practical and affordable choice.
Later in my career, I left Las Vegas to work for some large, well-known technology companies, allowing me to work with computer scientists and engineers from top-rated colleges. I always felt my UNLV education had prepared me just as well. And because of the success of the Runnin’ Rebels basketball team, no matter where I lived or worked, everyone had heard of UNLV.
Technology has changed drastically since your days as a UNLV student. What’s been the most significant/important technological advancement you have witnessed in your career?
Without a doubt, the development and expansion of the internet and the World Wide Web. In the very early days of the internet, you might see 10 new websites a day pop up. By the end of that first year, the number had grown exponentially to the point that there were too many to list.
The internet allowed ideas and products to reach many people quickly, while also allowing people to collaborate in ways never before possible. Most of the key technological advancements since have been built on the success of the internet.
You have long been a big proponent of STEM and computer science education at the K-12 level. When did you realize it was vital for today’s youth?
During the dark days of the Great Recession, it became clear that Nevada would have to diversify its economy. Having worked for a Silicon Valley technology company, I was familiar with the workforce requirements of these technology companies. I also knew that the development of such a workforce required a STEM education pipeline that started early in K-12, before kids decided to self-select out of the STEM fields.
Around 2015, I believed that by the time kids entering our K-12 education system graduated, every job might be a computer job. I also feared that advances in artificial intelligence would change or eliminate many current jobs. By 2016, I was convinced that, for our kids to be ready for the jobs of the future, computer science would need to become a core K-12 subject.
Looking back on your time at UNLV, what were some of the most impactful moments that helped set you up for future success?
UNLV’s computer science courses were very challenging. The degree also included calculus-based science classes and enough math classes to major in mathematics. One class in particular — Computer Science 418 — was legendary for its difficulty. To this day, students still print T-shirts stating “I survived CS 418.” It was the make-or-break class.
At the end of that brutal semester, I finished top of the class while working full time and commuting across town. Based on my success in that class, one of my computer science professors got me my first software programming job with a physics research group in the university’s chemistry building. With the extra money from the new job, I moved into the apartments across College Grove Avenue. I was finally living and working on campus, which enabled me to graduate.
UNLV students and alumni are encouraged to embrace their “Rebel spirit” — to be daring, take chances, and resist convention. Describe a moment when your “Rebel spirit” was on full display.
After I was elected to the Nevada State Board of Education, I discovered state education rules and requirements that I felt needed to change to better serve our kids. Experts told me that some of these rules and requirements would be impossible to change.
I set out to become an expert in the state education decision-making process and build relationships with other decision-makers. Through years of persistent effort, I was able to change some of those impossible-to-change rules and requirements.
Through that experience, I learned that sometimes it’s not that things are impossible to change, but rather people are just waiting for someone to come along who is determined to make the change.