For the second consecutive year, a Virginia Tech employee has received the Governor’s Award for Innovation.

In a ceremony at the Executive Mansion in Richmond, Va., on June 28, longtime employee Lawrence Sewell was honored for his work in designing and constructing the core service systems at the Math Emporium. For more than 20 years, Sewell has served as a valuable member of the Computing Center staff. 

Gov. Bob McDonnell presented Sewell with the Governor’s Award for Innovation, the same award Director of Transportation and Campus Services Steve Mouras won in 2012.

Sewell received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Auburn University and a master’s degree in computer science from Virginia Tech. He has worked at Virginia Tech since 1981. He is one of about 200 state employees who were nominated for awards in eight categories: Governor’s Agency Star, Career Achievement, Community Service and Volunteerism, Customer Service, Innovation, Teamwork, Workplace Safety and Health, and the “30 Day Sprint.”

Virginia Tech's Math Emporium is an open, 60,000-square-foot-laboratory with 550 Macintosh computers serving more than 16,000 math students each year. Technology is crucial to the success of the Math Emporium, as it supports a unique Web-based teaching and testing system that permits the use of streaming video, audio recordings, and other interactive tools to aid student understanding of concepts. The facility is open 24-hours a day to anyone with a valid Virginia Tech identification. Math staff is available 60 hours a week in the general computer area to help students enrolled in any of seven courses offered through the Math Emporium.

“Lawrence’s technical expertise, his innovative approach to problem-solving, and his acute attention to detail have been invaluable to our daily operations,” said Terri A. Bourdon, senior mathematics instructor and Math Emporium manager. “In addition, the frequent interest in our model of instruction and facility management by universities all over the country is largely attributable to Lawrence’s work.”

A project of this scale would normally involve a team of four to six engineers, analysts, and programmers. However, operating only from a high-level set of requirements for the test system (e.g., extreme scalability, user-friendly browser interface, sub-second response time, full access to history), Sewell, independently and solely, designed and built the Math Emporium core server system.

The system was able to run on small, outdated computers with performance levels well beyond expectations given the age of the equipment.

"In 2010 when Virginia Tech was faced with student usage patterns that threatened to overwhelm the decade-old system, Sewell introduced a new practice problem feature that restored the system’s efficiency,” said Peter Haskell, professor and department chair.

The focus of the system is the generation of random variations of practice quizzes that allow students to master all the skills that will be covered in the test. This allows 8,500 students to practice until they have truly mastered a particular skill. Tests are generated by the same system, which delivers 750,000 mathematics quizzes and tests each semester. These practice quizzes are essential to the Math Emporium’s emphasis on active learning to promote improved understanding of material.

Years after original development, Sewell’s system continues to demonstrate its flexibility by incorporating new software to deliver significant improvements in performance to meet increased demands and offer more features.

“Lawrence’s accomplishment was and is unique,” said Michael Williams, associate professor of mathematics emeritus and former director of the Math Emporium. “Even today we are unaware of a single comparably featured system. Without Lawrence’s contributions, the Math Emporium would not exist.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.


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