A voice for students

Benjamin Brewster

While Benjamin Brewster was growing up in Corvallis, his father worked at Hewlett-Packard where he worked on developing the Unix operating system and, by the end of his career, was ultimately in charge of all software systems at the company.

“Our house was always flooded with computers, and it was always a high-tech area,” Brewster said. “So, I was working with computers from an early age.”

It only makes sense, then, that Brewster would follow in his father’s footsteps and become an engineer.

“I actually started as a vocal performance major at Oregon State University,” he said. “But I quickly realized that it wasn’t as much fun as I had thought it would be when you have to study it.”

Brewster changed to computer science, graduating with a bachelor’s degree and subsequently earning a master’s degree in computer science as well.

While still a graduate student, Brewster and a friend started Corvallis Technical, an IT support business. His business partner soon left, but over the next eight years, Brewster grew the company into the largest outsourced IT enterprise in the mid-Willamette Valley.

As the company grew, though, Brewster found much of his time spent in administrative duties.

“I spent all day doing HR, taxes, payroll, contracts, and the next major step would have been to get a huge loan and hire a bunch more people to expand the footprint even further,” he said. “But I’m not a businessman. I just want to play with computers!”

When he learned about an opening at Oregon State for a part-time instructor in the online postbaccalaureate computer science program, Brewster jumped at the chance to teach operating systems, a course he had taught on campus as a graduate student.

He eventually sold his IT business and became a full-time instructor, teaching classes for both the online and on-campus programs.

“Owning my business really served me well, because I bring some of that well-rounded experience to Oregon State,” Brewster said. “It’s not just book learning — I had an opportunity to actually build things.”

“Students have their own dreams, and that means that we need to sculpt our program to meet those.”

Today, as director of online programs in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer science, Brewster is responsible for the operations of the program, which has seen tremendous growth since its inception in 2012 with the postbaccalaureate degree. The online programs now include a four-year computer science degree, a new honors degree in computer science, and a graduate degree program in computer science. All told, about 4,000 students are currently enrolled.

Brewster is passionate about being a voice for the online students to make sure their experiences meet their needs.

“Students have their own dreams, and that means that we need to sculpt our program to meet those,” Brewster said. “They have families and jobs, and even though they had the opportunity to take courses at their own local university or at their own community college, they chose us. Time is particularly precious to them, so it means that our courses need to be asynchronous to fit into our students’ lives.”

Toward that end, Brewster added fellow instructors Justin Wolford and Stephen Redfield to his team and standardized the way classes are structured so the transition from course to course is seamless for students. Classes are also asynchronous to allow students to view the courses when it’s convenient for them. In addition, a set of communication tools such as Ed Discussions and Slack were put in place to help students and instructors to work on assignments and build communities.

To ensure the quality of the courses, Brewster and his team continually redevelop existing courses to make sure they don’t get stale. At any one time, there are about 15 classes that are being updated. The online computer science programs are also always expanding, so new courses are being designed.

Ben Brewster and his family
Ben Brewster enjoys a day off with his family.

Although work keeps him extremely busy, Brewster finds time for his aviation hobby and finds several ways to incorporate it into his life. He already has his sport pilot license and is working on a private pilot license. He also serves as a faculty advisor for Oregon State Flying Club and is the secretary for the Experimental Aircraft Association chapter in Roseburg, Oregon.

Brewster particularly enjoys working on building airplanes with the experimental aircraft group.

“What’s really fun about that is how precise it is. Everything is really technical, and you get to sink your teeth into the laws and the precision of flying,” he said. “It’s highly creative, and yet it’s really deep in terms of the knowledge and at the end of the day, you’re flying an airplane, so it’s just the best.”

Brewster plans on building his own plane someday, but he first needs to finish building the shop at his home in Roseburg.

“That shop has space for an office above it, and one of my requirements for the space as we’ve been building it is that there’s going to be a window in the office looking down into the shop,” he said. “While I’m working, I’ll be able see the airplane take shape over the years.”

Brewster notes that his office looks like an air traffic control tower because he works with five computer monitors to keep the EECS online programs running smoothly.

“Since I started working at Oregon State it has never felt like a day of work,” Brewster said. “And I don’t mean that in terms of it being any easier than working in business. I mean that the work feels important, and the ability to transform people’s lives and help give them an education is what’s really fun.”

— By Gale Sumida
October 2023