If you walked through the doors of assistant professor-in-residence Jorge Fonseca’s office a couple months ago, you likely were greeted by a congregation of upcoming computer scientists. The College of Engineering professor continually cultivated the buzz of ideas, conversations, and puzzlement over memory leaks among his students. These days, his approach to teaching has altered.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, this UNLV alumnus (’12 BA Film Studies and BA Theatre Arts, ’19 Ph.D. Computer Science), is employing his experiences in engineering, film, and theatre to keep his students engaged from afar.
What has the transition from in-person to online teaching been for you?
Remote teaching has been my time to shine! I’ve set up a green screen and use special effects to make my classes interesting to students. The other day I used virtual reality to teach my lecture and uploaded the video to YouTube for those who missed it. Many of my students watch video game live streams, so they have a vested interest in that sort of setting. The response was overwhelmingly positive, according to my public comment section!
Have you had any mishaps or funny moments working from home?
YouTube Live decided to stop working during one of my lectures and I had to scramble to set up another Livestream using Twitch, a popular video streaming service. Despite my lack of experience with the platform, I managed to get my lecture running in 30 minutes. This is part of the fun; you never know what’s going to happen! I would have never imagined that I would use Twitch to give a university lecture, but the students loved it.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
People would be surprised to learn that I graduated with a bachelor of arts in film and theatre at UNLV. I have many interests and I wanted to pursue them, so I did. It’s important students know you don't have to stick to a single career path. You can choose something different and still succeed.
What inspired you to get into your field?
Computers have always played a big role in my life. One of my earliest memories is of my dad and I tinkering with a digital parrot to learn how it mimicked our speech. I also began to use computer programs to learn how to speak English. [He was born in Mexico City.] Around the age of 12, I began to surpass my dad’s knowledge and became part of the unofficial family IT help desk.
Still, like many students, I struggled to find a career path when I began my studies at UNLV. I was scared that being an engineer would consist of being behind a monitor all day. I wanted to do something where I would be active, so I made a complete turn in my studies and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree. A year later, I returned to UNLV and decided to pursue my earlier interest by enrolling in a computer science graduate program.
I still provide free IT services to my family, by the way.
What is the biggest misconception about your job?
The biggest misconception about my job is often the butt of a common joke: “Those who can’t do, teach.” Being a computer scientist, I often get asked why I didn’t accept a job at a private company. A lot of people don’t understand that professors are participating in groundbreaking research in areas that are often overlooked. The forefront of research worldwide has always been at the academic level — “Research for the sake of research.”
Another misconception about computer scientists is that people assume we’re ALL amazing coders when we’re simply good at finding, or googling, answers to complex problems.
Is this what you thought you’d do when you grew up?
Not at all. When I was in high school, I volunteered to teach in Mexico and even though I enjoyed it, I never considered it as a career. When I began my Ph.D. program, I understood getting a job in academia was extremely difficult. There’s a large discrepancy between the number of jobs available and the number of graduates. As I grew closer to my graduation, UNLV needed someone to teach a few computer science courses and after expressing my desire to teach these classes, I was offered a visiting lecturer position.
It all peaked very hard at the beginning because I was balancing classes, research, teaching, and writing my dissertation. Despite the heavy workload, I never felt that I was working. I still don’t. Teaching is my full-time hobby. I love being able to share my research and knowledge with students so they can grow and make the world a better place.
Who did you look up to in your field when you first started?
Dr. Laxmi Gewali was one of the first people at UNLV to encourage me to put in my best effort and pursue a Ph.D. program. I took his CS 202 course one summer and during that time he made me feel like I had a real shot at teaching in an academic setting.
I also look up to Dr. Kazem Taghva because he knows how to push you toward your goals without feeling pressured. It’s a useful skill because students will automatically shut down if you try to lecture them. There’s a fine line between guiding students and sounding like a parent. Now that I’m a professor, I try to keep that in mind.
You’ve said “Computer Science is about linking the real world and the digital world. To do that one must understand not just the science of the world, but the art of the world.” Can you expand on that?
There’s beauty in algorithms, but sometimes beauty is more than just a math formula. I’ve always believed that there’s more to the world than just the science behind it, and to understand it, we must look beyond the science and math. In computer science, this means attaching meaning to what I’m teaching and showing the real-world application. That’s why I always try to make my courses engaging. Sometimes I even use my film and theatre experience to make the material fun.
Outside of your work, what are you passionate about?
I came to the United States in 2006 and achieved the American Dream. Because of this, I always try to do what I can to help my community and other students like me. I was lucky to have had the opportunities that I did, so I always try to encourage other Hispanic students to pursue their interest in computer science.
I’m the only Hispanic computer science faculty member at UNLV. I’m very proud of that, but I wish I wasn’t the only one. I would like to see more Hispanic students in my classroom.
What do you miss most about campus?
I miss having face-to-face interactions. I hold office hours on a communication app called Discord, but I miss having 10 to 15 people in my office where we can work together and exchange ideas.
You just won a jackpot and want to give back to the university. What would you support and why?
That’s a tough one! I would like to give money to many areas at UNLV, including computer science, film, and theatre, but I don’t think we should focus all our efforts in one area. Because of this, I would like to set up a foundation for collaboration between each of our departments. This way, the funds can be used for research, conferences, travel, and equipment that supports cross-departmental collaboration. Part of the money would be used to create a startup with UNLV alumni and help the university grow.
It would also be nice to invest in a golf cart to get to my classes faster.