Huntsman Alumni Magazine

Spring 2014

Master Class: A Two-Time Teacher of the Year Provides Real-World Database Experience

Bob Mills with students

No one falls asleep when Bob Mills teaches. At least they don’t if they want to keep up. Dr. Mills’s academic train leaves the station quickly and the only people on it are those who constantly apply what they learn.

Not much stays in the theoretical realm in his database management class. Everything is applied immediately as students code and try to solve problems that he gives them as fast as they can find solutions.

It’s all about “cognitive processing,” Mills said, who has twice been named the Huntsman School of Business Teacher of the Year. He wants the students to be fully engaged as he teaches, and he has studied various learning styles so he can tailor his approach to his students.

“The more time they can touch the code the better,” according to Mills. “If you are going through PowerPoint slides or just citing examples, the students could completely drift off, but if they know they could be called on at any minute to share their solutions they stay quite engaged.”

The uninitiated might expect a database management class to be dull. The students who take his class soon know otherwise. Not participating is not an option. For example, Mills might suddenly stage a “code face-off” where students are launched into three-people teams who must solve problems in a timed tournament format. The rewards for wins are points that boost their grades.

"His expertise about the subject just explodes." 

- Robin Haueter, ‘14, Management Information Systems

Students describe his teaching style as both relaxed and passionate. Relaxed in that he makes the class fun and passionate because he seems to genuinely enjoy watching students get lost in the learning exercises he orchestrates.

“I would describe his teaching style as excited,” said Derek Saunders, a junior majoring in business administration. “He’s passionate about what he’s teaching and he just loves the material.”

This approach has influenced many students to change majors or take more MIS classes than they would have otherwise. That’s exactly what David Olsen, the head of the Management Information Systems department, was hoping would happen when he turned over the database classes to Mills.

Olsen knew that it was critical that the database management class be taught by an outstanding teacher who could help students catch a vision of the career opportunities available through a background in database management. Understanding databases is a key driver for the rapidly expanding field of “big data” where companies and organizations are learning how to analyze massive amounts of data to detect patterns that can lead to such things as finding medical cures, solving governing problems, or better targeting marketing efforts.

Students

According to Olsen, when Mills was initially assigned to teach this course, “he called me all the time. He wanted to know everything. I’ve almost never seen anybody so dedicated to learning everything about an area. He is very, very knowledgeable and prepared.”

The students notice.

“His expertise about the subject just explodes,” said Robin Haueter, a senior majoring in management information systems.

And graduates are finding work. Alyna Briscoe, a 2013 MIS graduate who now works at Vivint as a software engineer in their innovation center, noted that when she graduated she got job offers from every company where she applied and from others that she hadn’t even approached. Even economics and finance majors are finding that an understanding of SQL language, the code that is used to extract information from databases, is giving them a competitive edge when it comes to winning internships with firms like Goldman Sachs.

Students say Mills helps them outside the classroom when they face challenges, and they give him credit for getting them on a train that leads to rewarding careers.

“He is someone I can trust and always look up to,” said 2013 MIS graduate, Kyle Bell. “I am truly thankful for the positive influence Dr. Mills has had on my life and future. He has truly changed my life forever.”