In memoriam: Lawrence Sewell, computer engineer who designed, built Math Emporium computer system
June 14, 2019
Lawrence N. Sewell, a retired Virginia Tech computer engineer who helped design and build the computer systems for the Department of Mathematics’ Math Emporium, died May 27. He was 62.
An Alabama native who earned a master’s degree in computer science from Virginia Tech, Sewell joined Virginia Tech’s center computing staff in 1981 as programmer/analyst. In 1991, he transferred to the Department of Mathematics as a computer-systems engineer, where he designed and built the Math Emporium’s massive core computer system that encompasses online textbooks, practice problems, asynchronous tests and quizzes, and assignments for more than 8,000 math students annually.
Sewell held the position until he retired in 2013, the year he won a Governor’s Award for Innovation for his work at the Math Emporium. The following year, in 2014, he received a Virginia Tech Staff Career Achievement award. Sewell’s contributions to the Math Emporium have helped Virginia Tech students save an estimated $300,000 in textbook costs per year.
“Lawrence’s technical expertise, his innovative approach to problem-solving, and his acute attention to detail were invaluable to our daily operations,” said Terri A. Bourdon, Math Emporium academic manager and a senior mathematics instructor in the department, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science.
The Math Emporium’s emphasis on active learning, represented by unlimited practice problems, immediate feedback, and in-person help, has been crucial to the success of tens of thousands of students at Virginia Tech, from all majors. They and the facility’s more than 700 Macintosh computers rely heavily on Sewell’s work.
“Lawrence’s development of the computer systems used at the Math Emporium was an impressive creative technical achievement that has proved its value repeatedly as Virginia Tech enrollment has grown and more courses have migrated to the Emporium,” said Peter Haskell, a professor and former mathematics department chair. “Lawrence oversaw close to 15 years of Emporium operation with rare disruptions of service, no significant security breaches, and no loss of data. Time and again, he found ways to increase efficiency and improve scalability within the framework he developed. I can think of no higher education software that can match the Emporium for flexibility, efficiency, and endurance.”
Bourdon added that the Emporium’s success and duplication at other universities was in large part due to Sewell’s work. “The frequent interest in our model of instruction and facility management by universities all over the country is largely attributable to Lawrence’s work,” she said.
According to an obituary from McCoy Funeral Home in Blacksburg, Sewell is survived by his wife, Alberta; mother, Reba; daughter and son-in-law, Amy and Jim Robertson, and four grandchildren; in addition to a brother and sister-in-law, Charles and Brenda; two sisters, Rebecca Homan and Deborah Naugher; six nieces and nephews; great-nieces and a great-nephew. A celebration of life service to honor Sewell was held June 1.