Adjunct Lecturer Paul Lumsdaine Prepares Informatics Students for Real-World Challenges

October 24, 2018

UCI’s Department of Informatics is constantly bridging the gap between industry and academia — with professors like Gillian Hayes navigating both worlds and guest lecturers like Stew Sutton obtaining donated software licenses. Another ally in this effort is Adjunct Lecturer Paul Lumsdaine, an experienced software designer and educator. Lumsdaine currently works as a senior lead user designer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and he’s also the founder of Lab Coat Media, which offers design and web development services. In recent years, in addition to his full-time work, he has often been found in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), teaching Informatics 133: User Interaction Software and Informatics 134: Project in User Interaction Software.

Providing Hands-On Experience
“The first course that I taught was Informatics 133,” says Lumsdaine, who was working as a user experience designer for Ness Digital Engineering at the time. Although the course had traditionally been taught as an introduction to building a simple user interface while applying core principles of human-computer interaction, Lumsdaine put his own twist on the curriculum. “My experience in industry focused on user experience research, product strategy and interface design, so I took this as a chance to put together a course that taught the basics of everything I did in my day-to-day life as a lead UX designer for a software engineering company.”

Lumsdaine had the students build their own portfolio from scratch using basic front-end web development skills. They not only had to learn these skills but also apply them in a practical yet meaningful way. “I feel it’s important that we don’t focus so much on baseless memorization or lengthy exams as we do on providing meaningful outcomes for the students through projects and open discourse,” he says. “The tech industry these days demands that students have some hands-on experience with designing and developing software,” he explains. “Students need to be given the opportunity to rise to challenges they might face in the real world.”

According to Billy Guan, who took the course in fall 2016, “Paul emphasized the importance of functionality and user friendliness.” Guan recalls having to build a website using only vanilla JavaScript and HTML — no libraries. “Learning the basic vanilla coding syntax has helped me pick up other JavaScript libraries, such as AngularJS, that might have required a higher learning curve if starting from scratch.” He adds that what he liked best about the course was how “it really broadened my understanding in regards to user interaction with software.” Furthermore, the 2017 computer science graduate has found Lumsdaine’s emphasis on responsive software design to be integral to his current work, “where many of the users have different devices when they use the software I have built.” Notably, his current work is at JPL, where he holds a position in the Enterprise Business Information Systems division, alongside his former professor.

Guan is “a stone’s throw away from my desk,” says Lumsdaine, pleased that his former student “landed such an awesome position at JPL.” He adds that the two frequently have lunch together.

“Paul provides great advice on how an application should flow and how it should look visually to the customers,” says Guan. “He is a wonderful person to work with, and he is passionate about his user interface designs.”

Inspiring Students to Excel
Lumsdaine’s passion for his work spills over into his teaching. When he started teaching Informatics 134, he viewed it as “another opportunity to try and inspire the students to push for more than just the status quo.” It was a project course in which students had to put their few years of theory into practice. Lumsdaine further challenged students to “pair a social or moral issue with an emerging technology and, as a group, create a start-up around that mission.” Students had to prioritize features of their minimum viable product while also addressing “some of the greatest challenges of our time with technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and IoT devices.”

Students rose to the challenge. “They came up with some amazing combinations — addressing mental health through chatbots, combating sexual harassment through wearable devices, treating drug addiction with virtual reality and teaching children with autism critical social skills with an iPad app,” says Lumsdaine. “It was inspiring to see these students working so hard to create something meaningful while learning how to create their own start-up company using lean methodologies.”

Lumsdaine has consistently been impressed by his students. “Many of the greatest minds of our industry have walked through the hallways of UCI, and this legacy continues with the exceptional caliber of students I was privileged enough to teach.”

The Department of Informatics is similarly privileged to have someone of Lumsdaine’s caliber available as an instructor. “Paul has done an excellent job lecturing for us these past few years,” says Department Chair André van der Hoek. “He has been great in connecting with our students, teaching them real-life lessons and preparing them for prosperous careers ahead.”

At the moment, Lumsdaine is focused on his work at JPL. “We have a lot planned in terms of shaping not only the exploration of space but also in creating an atmosphere at JPL that promotes creativity, diversity and ingenuity.” Yet he also “very much enjoys teaching, maybe even more than designing,” he admits. “It’s something that I have always wanted to do and will continue doing as the opportunities arise.”

As luck would have it, an opportunity has already come up for Lumsdaine to teach Informatics 134 again this winter. “In its simplest form, knowledge is the sharing of experiences,” he says, “and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share my experiences with all the wonderful students at UCI.”

— Shani Murray