Backman Earns BVU’s Prestigious Wythe Award

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Dr. Nathan Backman, associate professor of computer science, was named the 33rd recipient of the George Wythe Award, Buena Vista University’s highest honor for excellence in teaching, at the conclusion of the University’s Employee Recognition Celebration on Friday, May 24.

Backman, a California native, earned degrees in computer science and mathematics at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash., the alma mater of his older sister, Hope Backman, who teaches kindergarten at Storm Lake Elementary School, and his wife, Megan, who also earned degrees in computer science and mathematics.

He poured himself into computer science content and continued his education, earning his master’s and doctorate in computer science at Brown University in Rhode Island.

Sensing his passion to teach and to share his love of computer science, Megan concluded their time in Rhode Island by searching for schools with teaching opportunities in his field. They found one at BVU and have loved being here ever since.

“I love the size of BVU, and I like the fact I get to teach half of the computer science curriculum,” he says. “At BVU, we have flexibility in what we can do and what we can offer. That flexibility also allows me to get creative while offering engaging opportunities for students beyond the classroom.”

Backman organized BVU’s virtual Capture the Flag computer security contest, an event that pitted BVU computer science majors against one another and against those from colleges across the nation, and internationally. He drafted the computational science portion of a Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust grant application that resulted in the creation of Iowa’s first collegiate High-Performance Computing and Visualization Center at BVU.

The faculty moderator for this fall’s William W. Siebens American Heritage Lecture featuring Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak also organized and led BVU’s Startup In Seattle Interim experience in which six computer science majors developed a prototype for a software application conceived by Luke Anderson, a 2015 computer science alumnus. Anderson joined the team in meeting with BVU alums who work in and around Seattle, and visiting firms such as Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Adobe as they continued to develop the “What’s Good Here?” app to rate and review restaurant menus.

Backman indicated he may use the Wythe Award to expand upon the Startup In Seattle success. The award includes a $30,000 stipend and a sabbatical for the recipient to pursue professional development and/or research.

“I want to do right and to do justice to the award itself,” he says.

In presenting the award, Jerry Johnson, assistant professor of digital media and chair of the selection committee, shared testimonials from students, including a somewhat famous tale involving Backman and the mandolin he keeps in his office at the Estelle Siebens Science Center.

“I had jury duty for a week and two days, I think,” Backman says. “So, I held classes at night during that time and I recorded the classes for students who couldn’t be there. I kept office hours after we concluded class and spent the time kind of roaming around the Science Center, playing the mandolin as I helped students with any questions they had.”

Backman joined other finalists, including Dr. Calle Friesen, associate professor of education; Dr. Shawn Stone, professor of physics and computer science, interim dean of the School of Science; and Dr. Jared White, assistant professor of Spanish, in being recognized on Friday.

Backman’s wife, Megan, and members of his family, joined him at the reception in Dows Grand Ballroom hosted by President Joshua Merchant.

“I wouldn’t want to see myself anywhere but at Buena Vista University,” the award winner concludes. “All I can hope for is to keep instilling a passion in my students through my work and my teaching. To see our students grow while they’re here is so rewarding. And it means just as much to see how they keep growing once they leave.”

The Wythe Award is endowed through a gift from the late BVU Life Trustee Drs. Paul and Vivian McCorkle, BVU Class of 1958. The award is named for George Wythe, the educator whose students included Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, James Monroe, and Henry Clay.