Education Technology

How a TI Calculator and a Few Special Teachers Added up to an Engineering Career

Posted 02/18/2021 by Erin Patterson, TI Education Technology Software Development Manager

One of my earliest memories is of me in the car, at the age of four, playing electronic math drill games on my Little Professor. For many years, my primary car entertainment was seeing how many answers I could get right in a row. I could have never imagined that today I would actually work as a software engineer for the company that created that very toy!

Despite an early beginning using arithmetic for entertainment, I don’t remember ever thinking that “when I grow up, I’m going to be an engineer.” In fact, in school I never felt that I was very good at mathematics, and it wasn’t one of my favorite subjects. I always loved computers and technology but wasn’t sure that I could ever be “good enough” to actually turn that love into a career. Developing that confidence would take the help and support of many special teachers along the way.

One teacher that particularly stands out is Shirley Pfingston, who taught logical reasoning to our fourth grade class in Orland Park, Illinois. Yep, that’s right, fourth grade! During this special weekly class, we solved riddles and played logic games. Little did I know then that what Ms. Pfingston presented as something of an indoor recess was actually teaching us the building blocks of critical thinking. I feel so privileged to have been introduced to these important problem-solving and engineering concepts at such a young age.

Fast forward to high school when I took my first programming class, AP® Computer Science, with Greg Cichoracki. As the youngest student in the class, I was a bit intimidated at first. But, with Mr. Cichoracki’s encouragement, I soon became the go-to student when others needed help with their own programming assignments. Mr. Cichoracki pushed me even further out of my comfort zone by urging me to join Mathletes as the school’s oralist representative. In this competition, I regularly earned first place explaining complex mathematical topics to the judges. Finally, during my junior year, Mr. Cichoracki supported me in an independent study programming project. This was my first real taste of software development which sadly came to an abrupt ending when my family had to relocate to another part of the country.

The high school in Plano, Texas, where we moved to didn’t offer any math classes beyond AP® Calculus, which I had already taken. So, I enrolled in a college course: Differential Equations. At the time, I wasn’t at all ready for the class, and I struggled throughout it, but I credit my TI-82 graphing calculator for helping me to at least pass! I still have that same TI-82 graphing calculator (it still works) on my desk to remind me of where I’ve been and that the road hasn’t always been an easy one.

After graduating high school, I attended Texas Christian University (TCU) where I majored in computer science and minored in English and math. I have to admit that I was feeling very discouraged by my first computer science class. While I was performing well in the class, there were very few females in the class, and a few of the boys were openly against the idea of women becoming computer scientists. The hostile, and frequently crude, remarks made me question my capabilities. I was about ready to admit defeat and switch majors when my professors, Craig Morgenstern and Bonnie Melhart, offered me a chance to work on an undergraduate research project. This project led to multiple grants and was the focus of my senior honors thesis. Even more importantly, working with these professors grew my self-confidence and problem-solving skills.

Erin Patterson
I joined Texas Instruments as a software engineer in 2010 and keep my Little Professor and my TI-82 graphing calculator on my desk to remind me how I got my start with TI technology.

Today, I am a Software Development Manager for Texas Instruments (TI), where I lead a team of talented developers. Our team is responsible for the creation and support of automated test tools for TI education technology. We develop special software that simulates human actions on TI calculators and software. It enables our team to write tests that verify functionality, such as: “Does the calculator return 4 for 2+2?” These tests are important because they can be rerun every time the code changes without needing a person to complete this tedious and repetitive task.

I would not be in this job without a lot of fabulous women before me who paved the way for females in STEM. This Engineers Week, I want to say thank you to the many teachers and mentors in my own life that provided me the skills and self-confidence to become a software engineer. I am proud to work for a company that is as passionate as I am about education and is dedicated to supporting tomorrow’s engineers, scientists and mathematicians.

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About the author: Erin Patterson is a Software Development Manager for the Education Technology group at Texas Instruments. She joined TI in 2010 and was elected to the technical ladder as a Member of Group Technical Staff in 2015. When she is not working, Patterson enjoys watercolor painting and 3D printing. She and her husband also love to travel and look forward to resuming their visiting of each of the U.S. national parks.