Magazine Feature / People

Computer science professor melds science, arts and business

photo portrait

Scott Leutenegger was awarded the University’s Distinguished Teaching Award. PHOTO BY: Wayne Armstrong.

Scott Leutenegger had a choice to make in college: a lifetime of tooting the tuba or pounding out mathematical equations.

If the two sound mutually exclusive, they’re not. And as a University of Denver professor with a doctorate in computer science, Leutenegger is on a mission to help more students and teachers see the value in a multi-disciplinary approach to learning that incorporates the hard sciences with the arts, business and creative thinking.

Leutenegger (pronounced loo-TEN-ah-grr) received the University’s Distinguished Teaching Award in September.

“I think where we’re heading is this trans-disciplinary approach. That’s where America’s next path lies, where we can think creatively and from a lot of different areas,” Leutenegger says. 

Leading DU’s fledgling computer game design degree program, Leutenegger encourages students to look not just at the computer coding. Instead he insists they conceptualize the artwork and develop engaging storylines. And then there’s the ethical component, helping students develop games that raise awareness.

For Leutenegger — the would-be orchestral tuba professional who enjoys bungee jumping, hiking, cooking, martial arts and snowboarding — melding art and science seems natural. 

Music led to math

He started out as a music major in college before finding mathematics. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s and doctorate in computer science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Leutenegger worked for NASA and IBM in data storage and retrieval before coming to DU.

It was amid the dot-com bust that Leutenegger and his colleagues saw enrollment in computer science drop off and spotted an opportunity to branch into the emerging field of game design to lure students. Incorporating art was an important component, and Leutenegger began working on yet another degree for himself, this one in studio art.

Now, with DU’s computer game development program firmly in place and already producing award-winning programs with a focus on “humane gaming,” Leutenegger is working with Education Adjunct Professor Debra Austin and Art Associate Professor Rafael Fajardo on an annual summer camp to encourage high school students to explore science and art through computer games. 

And this past summer, he added another component, a session for high school teachers to expose them to the program and encourage them to get their students excited about math, science and art.

Classroom style benefits students

Fajardo commends Leutenegger’s willingness to combine science and art, as well as his classroom style, which goes beyond traditional lectures.

“He is creating an environment of co-learning. This is an act of courage, and marks an openness to personal growth in the classroom,” Fajardo says. “Scott is exploring and adapting methods from other fields — specifically design fields — to develop appropriate teaching strategies for game development. 

“This is a thoughtful approach to introducing subject matter for which there is no established pedagogy. Scott’s thoughtfulness benefits his students,” Fajardo says.

Leutenegger was recognized with the University’s Distinguished Teaching Award at the 2007–08 Convocation ceremony. 

For Leutenegger and his colleagues, the next step will be to develop a game design curriculum that can be distributed to high school and middle school teachers to help them engage the next generation of students in thinking across academic disciplines.

“The idea of putting this into the schools, I think that’s where the big opportunity will come,” Leutenegger says. “We could hand them this curriculum and the books and make it totally free.”

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