Faculty Spotlight: Meet Dr. Tamara Peyton, “The Idea Genie”


Dr. Tamara Peyton

Harrisburg University prides itself on providing a higher education to groups historically underrepresented in the science and technology fields.

It’s a mission that spoke to HU Professor Dr. Tamara Peyton. In fact, it’s what prompted her to turn down several other teaching offers at larger colleges to join the faculty of HU more than three years ago.

Hailing from a farming background in Winnipeg, Canada, Peyton knows first-hand just how important educational opportunities are to those who need them the most. The Assistant Professor of Social Computing and head of the university’s Human-Centered Interaction Design MS Program was the first person in her family to graduate high school, let alone attend college.

“The students that we draw feel a lot like the kind of kids I went to high school with, feel a lot like the kind of student I could have been if I had been able to go to school fresh out of high school,” she said. “And, so, being first-generation college myself, and seeing how much different my life is than, say some of my cousins, who didn’t get to go to university, attracted me to HU. I’m also a huge advocate for including women and minorities in tech. Hence, another reason HU seemed like a great place to be, because of the diverse population in both students and faculty.”

Peyton wasn’t necessarily heading toward a career in academia following high school. She spent years working in IT. But, at the age of 33, she enrolled in college and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Concordia University in Montreal; a master’s degree in sociology from Carleton University in Ottawa; and a Ph.D. in Information Sciences & Technology from Penn State. HU recruited Peyton from Happy Valley and she has been here since May of 2016.

We recently caught up with the self-professed dog lover and gamer to discuss her background, learn more about her work at HU, and find out a bit more about what she enjoys outside of the classroom.

Dr. Peyton is pictured at ACM’s SIGCSE, the world’s premiere computer science education conference, where she presented her computer science education work

Q: What do you think makes HU special in how the university teaches students?

A: I think it’s the fact that we acknowledge that there’s different ways to teach this population. We don’t stick to old, traditional sage-on-the-stage approaches where there’s just someone lecturing at you for two hours. We advocate for active learning. We advocate for authentic assessment. And the general understanding here that universities have evolved to suit the career aspirations of this population, and the desire for a better life that going to a university can offer if they finish their degree, is something else that I think is unique about us. And we don’t get stuck in old disciplinary silos. We bring into the classroom a multitude of perspectives from across many different disciplines to teach, train, and mentor the students into this 21st Century world that needs that broad, interdisciplinary mindset.

Q: What research projects are you working on with students?

A: I am working on two. I am working on a project that examines how empathy can be taught as a professional skill to designers and healthcare professionals. In a service-driven economy, which is where the U.S. and North America, and the western world in general has arrived at, in order to provide services to people that are meaningful and solve real needs, you have to be able to understand them. And in order to understand them, you have to be able to say that ‘I understand where you’re living at.’

And it’s different than compassion. Being able to do understand where people are at as a professional, whether you are a nurse or you’re an interactive designer, ensures that what you’re doing has a positive impact on the people that you’re trying to help.

The second project, “Millennials and the Qualified Self,” came about by being curious about the way in which all of us all carrying phones in our pockets has changed the way we remember things, particularly for the younger generation, the 18- to-29-year-old generation. So, how has photography moved away from being something we did to remember a happy event in our life to just remembering day-to-day stuff that we need to do or that we need to have access to. That generation doesn’t write notes anymore. They take photos. So, what does that mean to that practice, which is called cognitive offloading. What does taking a picture of where you parked or of what you ate for dinner to put in your journal later, or of the course syllabus, do to your memory faculties in general, and what opportunities are there for us to design a new app, potentially, that uses mainly photographic data as opposed to textual data to do that type of cognitive offloading. Right now, the majority of task-list applications and those applications that we all use to remember things are based on text data. But that population doesn’t deal in text data. They use image data.

Q:  What do you enjoy doing when you aren’t working?

Dr. Peyton’s main character in World of Warcraft

A: I’m a big Video gamer. I like a lot of MMO’s. I play World of Warcraft, for example. I spend way too many hours on World of Warcraft. I like Hearthstone. I like League of Legends, and a lot of board games as well. I’m an unrepentant geek.  I’m into all things geeky – video games, superhero movies, sci-fi and fantasy books, and renaissance fairs. I do a lot of cooking, a lot of Italian and a lot of Irish flavors. I like to create experiments in my slow cooker.

I’m also a big dog lover. I have a dog. She is a rescue dog. She is mainly cattle dog, and Australian shepherd, mixed with a whole bunch of other stuff from shih tzu to pit bull, according to her genetic test. Of course, because I’m a scientist, I had her genetically tested.

I live in midtown (Harrisburg). I like being able to walk to all of the local stuff. I like being able to walk to the Broad Street Market, the Midtown Scholar, and the Millworks, and being able to walk to campus on occasion or cycle down the waterfront. I like taking my dog for walks on Front Street. I love this city.

Other than that, I travel a lot and check out a lot of museums. On my major travel bucket list would be the Grand Canyon, the Seychelles, India, and Japan. One of my other bucket list items during the next two years is to visit every Smithsonian museum. I visited the African American museum during the summer, which is the newest one, and I was blown away by it. That’s where that idea came from. Also, some of what I teach can be integrated into experiences and exhibits in museums. So, seeing what they are doing in existing museums lets me bring back ideas to teach in the classroom.

Q: What else would you like people to know about you?

A: My nickname is “The Idea Genie.” I actually held the name as a job title back in the 90s. I had to come up with new ideas for digital services on the internet under that title. I helped start one of Canada’s first commercial internet service providers. It was like an early version of Comcast. We started out as a commercial bulletin board system. And then someone showed us a browser. And the browser world was like two or three months old then. And my friend and I looked at each other and went, ‘ohhh,’ and started a mini business called Magic Online. And that became one of Canada’s first commercial Internet service providers in 1994.

So, that was where I had the title, Idea Genie. But my colleagues around here started realizing that’s my nickname, too, because I use design thinking in what I teach. Design thinking is about coming up with a ton of ideas to solve a real-world problem. And, so, my colleagues have discovered that if you give Tamara a little bit of input, turn around, send her away and wait 12 hours, she will come back at you with a whole package of possible ideas.

Q: What are you looking forward to here for HU’s future?

A: I’m really looking forward to seeing our new UX (User Experience) Center flourish under the guidance of Dr. Adams Greenwood-Erickson. He is the newest member of our IMED faculty. He is bringing his UX Center up with him from Orlando. And he is bringing all of his real-world clients; he has big gaming studio clients. So, what the UX Center is all about is testing products that have been built to make sure they fit the needs of the market and that they fit how people expect to use those products. He has been focusing on games, but with the move here, he will be focusing on anything digital. And we are going to expand it beyond usability, which is the last part of UX., and that is mainly what it has been focused on. We are going to expand the UX Center into testing out design concepts and ideas, market analysis, and more. And one of the advantages of having the UX Center, which is dear to my heart, is that it’s primarily staffed by students. It will give students real-world studio experience to put on their CV. And it will really let us connect what we are teaching them in the classroom with what really happens in the real-world studio.

I’m also really looking forward to seeing how our HCID program starts to build and grow as we accept our first cohort this spring. And we’re working on creating partnerships with some of the other grad programs to offer minors in fields such as consumer behavior, healthcare management, healthcare innovation, and project management. So, following the HU approach of making sure that all learning is interdisciplinary, and as a degree HCID already is interdisciplinary, but cross-listing relevant minors from other HU programs adds another level of real-world practicality to that interdisciplinarity.

About Harrisburg University

Accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Harrisburg University is a private non-profit university offering bachelor and graduate degree programs in science, technology, and math fields. For more information on the University’s affordable demand-driven undergraduate and graduate programs, call 717.901.5146 or email, Connect@HarrisburgU.edu.

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