Faculty in Focus: Olaf Hall-Holt

Professor of Computer Science Olaf Hall-Holt is well known for being invested in his students and passionate about computer science. He grew up in Nigeria, and his family moved to the United States when he was in middle school. He completed a bachelor’s degree at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, graduate work at the University of Minnesota, a Ph.D. at Stanford and postdoctoral work at State University of New York Stony Brook.

Hall-Holt is one of three professors in the computer science department, and he teaches courses about the R and Python programs, algorithms, a senior capstone course, an advanced team project course and Mobile Web Graphics. Although the department is small, Hall-Holt believes that computer science will become more and more popular in the future due to the increasing importance of programming skills.

“I do think that it would be valuable for more students to know a little bit about computing. In this century, it seems that computing is going to continue to become more and more important. With the way that people and organizations think about the world, it would make sense to me for a much larger fraction of the St. Olaf student body to start getting a taste. Not in order to become a software developer, not to spend all their time with computers, no. To have some idea of what tools are available,” Hall-Holt said.

Even though students tend to be intimidated by computer science, Hall-Holt hopes to help students break away from that preconception and attract more students to computer science classes.

“While computer science has gotten a reputation for being inscrutable in some places, it actually isn’t – it’s like any other topic where if you take the time to investigate you can learn it,” Hall-Holt said.

Hall-Holt is involved in a number of his students’ research projects.

“This interim, the course that I taught was a research oriented course. We had six teams working on six different research questions. They will be, I hope, presenting their work at a regional conference. They just found out in the past few days that their abstracts were accepted, so I will be working with them to try to get ready for this conference.”

Along with his wife and three kids, Hall-Holt will be leading St. Olaf’s Global Semester Program during the fall and interim terms next year. He is excited to use his computer science background to create a cohesive and interesting course for the students going abroad with him.

“There are some things that are set. For each of the four main countries that we stay in for a month, there [will be] instruction by experts in the local area. But I am responsible to create a course that tries to tie it all together,” Hall-Holt said. “The course that I am teaching is called Social Change and Technology in a Globalized Context. So there are a lot of important changes happening around the world right now, and some of them claim to be related to this same topic that I was mentioning earlier of computation.”

Hall-Holt loves getting to know his students and is very interested in seeing everyone who is enrolled in his classes succeed. He loves the subject of computer science, but it’s the enthusiasm of the students that really makes teaching it worthwhile.

“My favorite part is the people, actually. When someone says that what they have learned is valuable for them, when they are excited about what they are working on, that makes me excited.”