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Pioneering computer science at UNB: the Wasson family bridges technology, business and learning

Author: UNB Alumni

Posted on Sep 19, 2022

Category: Computer Science , Inspiring Stories , UNB Fredericton , Engineering

Wasson family, 2013
Photo (from 2013): 
Brad Wasson, Marie-Claire Wasson (Brad & Colettes’s daughter), Colette Gagnon Wasson, Dana Wasson, Jane Wasson, Barbara Wasson, Didrik Wasson Lillehaug (Barbara's son), Svein-Ivar Lillehaug (Barbara's husband)

 

From her classroom at the University of Bergen, Norway, Professor Barbara Wasson (BScCS’82) tells her students that “data is the new gold.”

Barbara, director of the national Centre for the Science of Learning and Technology hosted at the university, has been involved in researching technology-enhanced learning since her master’s began in 1983. But even before that, she’d developed a passion for data and problem-solving during her first computer science course at UNB.

Her father, Dana Wasson (BScEE’56) may have influenced her just a little. He also made an impact on his son, Brad (BScSE’86) and daughter-in-law Colette (BScCS’86) Wasson.

After graduating from survey engineering at UNB, Brad – at the suggestion of his father – studied to complete a master’s degree in computer science at the University of Saskatchewan, where his sister Barbara was doing a PhD after finishing a master’s at the University of Waterloo. While Barbara was doing ground-breaking work using artificial intelligence in learning environments, Brad dug deep into programming and began making the connection for how technology enables business.

That was something their father seemed to have mastered a few decades earlier.

The late Dr. Wasson was considered the father of computing at UNB. A genius in science and mathematics, Dana went straight from grade 11 to UNB and scored essentially a 4.3 in every class of his undergraduate years. In his final year in 1956, Dana – inspired by a story in Popular Science magazine – partnered with fellow student Bob Cass to design and build from scratch a four-function, refrigerator-sized electronic computer out of vacuum tubes. This innovation stimulated his deep interest in what would become the field of computer science.

In 1956, Dana headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to complete his master’s degree, and was then lured back to New Brunswick in 1958 to teach in UNB’s electrical engineering faculty and marry the love of his life Jane Roxborough Dickson. This would prove to be the beginning of a 40-year career which saw him become one of Canada’s true technology visionaries and computer pioneers.

His lists of firsts and accomplishments were many. In 1959, Dana arranged for UNB and NB Power to co-finance the purchase of the university’s first programmable computer, the Royal-McBee LGP-30. In 1964, the Computing Centre was established at UNB with Dana as its first director. The university acquired the most powerful computer east of Montreal in 1968 when the IBM 360/50G mainframe computer was purchased. That same year, Dana established the first Department of Computer Science in Canada, offering a Master of Computer Science degree through Electrical Engineering. In 1974, he became the first director of the School of Computer Science, and UNB conferred its first BSc (Computer Science) degree. In 1987 the computer science Ph.D. program was approved and offered by the university. And in 1990, UNB established the first Faculty of Computer Science in Canada, with Dana as the Dean.

In his early days teaching at UNB, Dana completed a PhD from the University of Waterloo, spending a year living there with his young family. He was impressed with the co-op program and brought that model to UNB when he established the first co-op program east of Ontario, in 1981.

Dana’s career was filled with insights and innovations – and a unique understanding of how information technology would shape the future. At UNB he established both a technological and educational base for many alumni to prosper in the field of computer science. To do so, he continually garnered support for his vision and challenged traditional ideas of where computer science fit in the academic structure.

Brad remembers those years well. He and Barbara grew up on Windsor Street, a stone’s throw from the engineering and future computer science faculties. “We basically grew up on campus,” he remembers. “I recall seeing the first mainframe computer and the room being really cold – there was so much cooling required in those days!”

Those mainframes in Head Hall are where Brad and Colette (Gagnon) became friends during their undergraduate years.

The first in her family from northern New Brunswick to attend university, Colette was thrilled to receive an entrance scholarship to the computer science program in 1982. At that time, female students made up a full 50% of the faculty, and Colette loved the challenge of problem-solving, coding and programming. Dr. Wasson taught her in her third year of the program – also the year she met Brad. “I laughed because Brad had his own direct link to the mainframe in the basement of his house! There was no need to sign up and share a terminal at the computer lab in Head Hall.”

After taking courses in business analysis and how to architect computer systems for business planning, Colette graduated and was immediately recruited to work at Met Life in Ottawa. “The UNB program was so well recognized that the company recruited a lot of the CS grads. We were well prepared for industry – which is something Dana always felt was a priority.” After a few years, she went back to school for an MBA degree from the University of Ottawa and then jumped into management consulting with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). “I was very fortunate to work for progressive and innovative organizations and have amazing mentors.”

During this time, she and Brad had reconnected and he moved to Ottawa to work for Stats Canada and marry Colette. He quickly switched to the private sector at a geomatics company looking for a software developer. When the software was sold, he had numerous options for work – it was, after all, the heyday of ‘Silicon Valley North’ in Ottawa. He was ultimately hired by Hewlett Packard where he worked for almost 8 years, spending three years with the international arm of the company.

Brad and Colette eventually moved back to Fredericton to raise their family and start their own consulting company, Business Bridge Inc. “We wanted to play in a space linking the tech side with the business side. Most organizations thrive or not based on their ability to leverage technology to enable their business,” Brad explains.  Colette adds, “We wanted to play on the same team, and we’ve never looked back.”

While Brad had incredible opportunities at NB Power (as director of Smart Grid and then as Chief Digital Innovation Officer), Colette delivered strategic engagements with the New Brunswick Department of Health and The Learning Bar. It was the latter organization where she became CEO. “We use data to challenge the status quo of education. Our surveys, evaluations, interventions and literacy program are part of a unique assessment framework that focuses on factors that impact all parts of a child’s wellbeing and learning outcomes. This all came originally from the work of Dr. Doug Willms and his research team at UNB. We’re really a data company collecting educational data to help develop better ways of learning and better student outcomes to help transform the lives of children.”

Colette says that in a way she’s come full circle – The Learning Bar hires a lot of co-op students and graduates of UNB’s computer science program. “We have an incredible IT team of developers and many come from the UNB program. I can tell you they still have a strong and rigorous way of solving problems.”  

Brad found that to be true as well. There’s a large team of UNB computer science grads at NB Power, and they don’t take a backseat to anyone in the world.” Brad had the “amazing opportunity” at the utility to lead the smart grid program in cooperation with Siemens as a global partner. When he moved to the role of Chief Digital Innovation Officer, he was responsible for building innovative non-power engineering areas. “NB Power already had a lot of innovations on the power engineering side, but now we needed to digitize the business and leverage technology. We got into augmented virtual reality and robotics. Artificial intelligence and machine learning moved to the forefront. It was an exciting time.” Brad has recently stepped back full-time into his role within his and Colette’s consulting business working with organizations at the intersection of business and IT. “There’s a rich global interest in solving problems using technology and data, and it’s given rise to amazing companies that drive the lives we live today.” 

Back in Norway, Barbara has become a master at attracting millions of dollars in R&D funding to her centre for research. “My whole life has been around technology-enhanced learning that’s served me well in Europe. I began to marry technology and learning in Saskatchewan and then again when I worked in Toronto building the world’s first networked classroom. I met my husband (who teaches medical informatics) in a summer school in Calgary sponsored by NATO, and a year later, joined him in Norway when I was offered a job at Telenor R&D in 1991.”

Barbara Wasson received her UNB degree from her father, Dana Wasson in 1982
Barbara Wasson receiving her UNB degree from her father, Dana Wasson in 1982

 

The University of Bergen came calling after Barbara gave a talk at a national computer science conference in 1993. Since then, she’s been teaching master’s and PhD courses in technology enhanced learning, artificial intelligence, and learning analytics to students all over the Nordics, and has led several national and European ICT and learning projects. She was named full professor – a revered honour in the Norwegian system – when she was young in her career. Her research has focused on collaborative learning in distributed settings, mobile learning, interaction design, intelligent tutoring systems, learning analytics, and more. She’s been extremely successful in securing funding – over $30 million – and in 2002 she was involved in the technology transfer of research from an EU project to the Norwegian company ENOVATE AS, where she is one of the owners.

Barbara was one of the founders of Kaleidoscope, a European Network of Excellence on Technology Enhanced Learning and helped lead its over 400 members and 27 partners around Europe. She is often called to be an expert evaluator by the European Commission. As Director of SLATE she works with learning analytics, an interdisciplinary field at the intersection of data science, education, psychology, law, ethics, and human computer interaction.  “It is an amazing experience. This is a challenging and complex area to work in. It’s very much in the area of data literacy – how we interact with each other through technology and data. It’s also about the dangers of data surveillance – our work will inform Norwegian educational laws. It’s sometimes difficult to show the impact, but technology absolutely changes people’s learning. Dad saw that early on. He was always strategic and we saw what he could do. It was inspiring.”

Barbara, Brad and Colette all agree that Dana was above all a kind man who loved students and always had time for them. “His service to students was second-to-none.” They also agree that as the matriarch of the family, Jane brought something equally as valuable to the learning and innovation-focused environment: creativity and a love for the arts. “We grew up in an environment focused equally on art and science. She loves  the performing arts, fine arts, design, weaving and sewing. She taught at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design and became a master weaver. She gave us the balance we needed that helped shape us into who we are.”

The family tradition continues today, with one of Dana’s and Jane’s grandchildren taking computer science (co-op program) at UNB and the other three doing innovative and creative work of their own. “Mom and Dad taught all of us to follow our passion and think deeply about how things connect and how to move them forward.”

 For this family that has built – and continues to build – bridges between technology, business and learning – they were lessons well learned.