Zachary Butler: Solving the puzzle of learning

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A. Sue Weisler

Zachary Butler, B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences

Thirty minutes into teaching one of his first robotics courses, a young woman raised her hand to ask Zack Butler a question.

“I speak for all of us in the back row,” she said, “and we don’t understand anything you have done for the last 10 minutes.”

“At first I panicked, but I am so glad that she said that,” said Butler, an associate professor of computer science. “I encourage all my students to do this if they don’t understand something I’m teaching, because I want them to know I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure everyone gets it.”

Butler, who has taught at RIT for nearly 12 years, is receiving an Eisenhart Award for Outstanding Teaching. For Butler, teaching is a puzzle—one in which he is always trying to figure out the best way to help each student understand a concept.

As far back as he can remember, Butler has enjoyed solving all kinds of puzzles, from crosswords to Sudoku. He picked up the hobby from his mother, who was the local high school computing teacher.

While studying electrical engineering at Alfred University, Butler began to gain an interest in robotics. He went on to Carnegie Mellon University and later Dartmouth College, where his focus shifted to computer science and programming algorithms for robots. It was there that he got his lucky break at teaching, when a professor went out on maternity leave.

“I always had the idea of teaching in the back of my mind, but other than tutoring, I had never done it,” said Butler. “There were a few rough patches at first, but I focused on coming up with new and different ways of explaining the subject to students.”

For mobile robot programming courses, Butler has been known to walk around the room like a robot bumping into things. He uses the example to spark a discussion about how robots avoid obstacles.

“If we need to have extra meetings to dive deeper into a topic, I’m all for it,” Butler said. “I think success is defined by if you learned something.”

Outside of the classroom, Butler has been a judge with FIRST Robotics for 14 years. He has also traveled the world as a member of the U.S. Puzzle team, winning nine world championships.

He even brings his passion for puzzles back to RIT, giving his crosswords as gifts to students and fellow faculty and creating a special crossword puzzle for friends to solve during graduation ceremonies every year.