An Interdisciplinary Approach to Computer Science
Newly appointed Computer Science faculty member Meltem Ballan shares how her background as a General Motors executive influences her perspective as a teacher and how she plans to support Bennington students in data science.
By Halley Le '25
What brought you to Bennington?
Five years ago, I became acquainted with a few faculty members at Bennington, namely Tim Schroeder and Dean of Faculty Sarah Harris at a running event in Manchester, VT. They told me that students are increasingly in need of computer education as well as marketable skills in computer science and technology.
I used to be a professor at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. I had to write grant proposals and run a lab while also teaching and leading research, and there was too much pressure on publishing. I was missing out on the part that I liked the most: not only giving lectures, but also learning from my classes. Bennington provides a drastically different educational setting, so I thought it would be a great environment to continue my teaching career. Not only do I want to teach about the technical aspects of computer science, but I also want to incorporate ideas from other disciplines into how we approach technology.
I had to take five years to think about going back to academia. But right now, I am truly enjoying the Bennington interdisciplinary approach to education!
What are you excited to teach at Bennington?
My expertise lies in artificial intelligence and data science, but I have a strong background in computer science. It is great for me to go back and teach programming to students with diverse goals, different backgrounds, and various levels of proficiency. Next term, I am planning to teach a class called Software Design. Designing scalable and testable software products excite me from the research and professional perspectives, and I hope to incorporate my background in software design and data structures with the traditional education to a more practitioner approach that we use technology today.
Finally, I like to define technology as a tool. Another class I am excited to teach next term is on Web3, a brand-new topic in the Bennington curriculum. Even though we often come across concepts like cryptography, cyber security, cryptocurrencies, or blockchain, those terminologies are still not familiar to the lay audience. In my class, students from even entry levels can learn about the history and development of Web3 (or Web1 and Web2 previously), the basis of cryptocurrency, or the code of ethics on cyberspace. Once you understand the background and fundamentals of modern technologies, you can translate them and implement them for your own purpose.
I am an ambassador for a government initiative around blockchain (GBA). My students will be offered access to the Blockchain Academics platform, in addition to learning materials and an official certificate once they complete the class. I plan to adjust the materials and be inclusive to students of all backgrounds, but I believe that once students master the concepts, they will be in a unique place, and I'm excited to learn about modern technologies with them.
What has been your favorite experience in class so far?
I enjoy the excitement and encouragement from the students. I bring in a different style of teaching, and I like my interactions with students, especially because Bennington students are willing to learn and be independent in their academic pursuits. The peer-to-peer support has also been amazing—I can rely on the Computer Science tutors to help many of my students!
How was the transition from working in the tech industry to teaching?
I graduated from college in the 90s and went straight to work without a graduate degree. After seven years, I went back to academia, where I studied neuroscience and applied data science methods into my research.
I have worked as a data scientist, a data science consultant, a data engineer, and most recently, an executive. At General Motors, I managed 500 employees—almost as many people as our entire student population! [Leading a big team] was great, but I didn't have a lot of hands-on experiences. I yearn to have creative and independent thinkers on my team who can come to me with ideas instead of simply implementing what I tell them to do.
I hope to bring educational experiences that incubate creative and independent thinkers. This is where teaching at Bennington became enticing: at a traditional school, I wouldn’t have the freedom to teach the classes I am planning to teach, while at Bennington, there isn’t the slightest limitation. I can teach whatever class I want and whatever class my students desire, and if I go back into industry, I can have human resources like my students–independently creative individuals–working on my team!
What do you like to do in your free time? Where do you spend your free time in the surrounding Bennington area?
One of my favorite things is running. I run and I am a fitness junkie. When I was in Austin, Texas, my husband Nathen Hinson and I hit the gym daily from 5:00 to 6:00 am. My husband is actually a software developer, and he wrote an app called Appy Gym for the time we spend at the gym every day. I also like skiing and cannot wait to ski in Vermont! My biggest regret is that we don’t have a professional NHL hockey team in Vermont as we – my husband, our dog Agamemnon (AKA Aggie), and I – love hockey.
Aside from staying active, I truly enjoy coming to campus. If I don’t have a meeting, I will take my dog Aggie for a walk around campus for about an hour. I also like a coffee shop in town, where you have a drink and look at the crafts made by the locals. The other day I saw a couple of artworks from Bennington students there. They are too cute!
What are you looking forward to this or next term?
I am supporting two of my students, Niki Karanikola ’23 and Mohammad Tanvir Anjum ’25, as they launch a Women in Data Science initiative on campus!
Niki proposed the idea of starting an initiative around data science practice, ethics, and women’s presence in the field. I wanted her to start off with a more structured plan than what she suggested, so I directed her to the nation-wide Women in Data Science (WiDS) Conference hosted by Stanford University. Niki applied to become a campus ambassador for the WiDS, and she is now incubating plans for a podcast series and several data science-related events with the support from Stanford. Our goal is to encourage women’s participation in data science, while also improving data science representation in Bennington.
I have had a long history with WiDS, having run the initiative at General Motors since 2018. I'm a woman with years of experience in the industry and I am also neurodivergent, so I understand how the field of technology is prejudiced against minor groups. It is important for marginalized communities like ourselves to be a part of the picture, and I feel happy and lucky to find students who support the cause.
Tanvir is a great example of this unwavering support; he has proven to me that WiDS is not only for women to take the stage, but also for men to support women on the stage. Another reason why I wanted Bennington to be a part of WiDS is because we have a lot of marginalized groups in the College. Maybe next year we won't call it Women in Data Science; instead, we would call it the Bennington Community in Data Science!