By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications
SALEM, Ore. -- Keith Carlson (Sr., Bainbridge Island, WA/Bainbridge HS), a member of the Willamette University men's cross country team and men's track and field team, has earned success in both sports. He has competed at the NCAA Championships twice in cross country, and placed second in 2017 and 2018 at the NWC Cross Country Championships. He took second place in the 10,000-meter run at the 2018 Northwest Conference Championships in track and field, and was fourth in the NWC in the 5,000-meter run in 2017. Carlson also has been successful as a student at Willamette while majoring in computer science and mathematics.
"I knew coming in to Willamette that I wanted to major in computer science and I immediately started taking classes that counted towards the major," Carlson said. "My freshman year I also took some math classes with the hopes of getting them out of the way early, but instead I fell in love with the math department here at Willamette. I had enough time ahead of me that I could double major and still finish in four years, so that is what I decided to do. It has been one of the best decisions I have made and it is really awesome how connected the two majors are."
Willamette cross country and track and field Head Coach Matt McGuirk isn't surprised by Carlson's ability to balance success in the classroom with success as an athlete.
"Keith understood from day one that the expectation was that he's here at Willamette to be a student first, but he also knew that he would be provided an outstanding athletic experience as well," McGuirk said. "Keith and our other student-athletes always build in plenty of dedicated study time when we are on the road."
Carlson is not only a good student, he's also very good at writing computer code. His classmates say that when coding is involved, he's typically ahead of everyone else in the class. It just seems to come naturally for him.
When explaining his success at coding, Carlson points to a variety of classes that have taught him a lot about computer science and have given him confidence within his majors.
"A couple of years ago I took an upper level math geometry course and that was a specific class that continues to stand out for me," Carlson said. "One of my favorite things we learned was how to prove things by way of an algorithm. This was a really cool technique that made a lot of sense to me in my mind. Algorithms are also a huge part of computer science so I was able to take a lot of that knowledge back to my computer science classes. A specific example is in the geometry class we learned about these things called Voronoi diagrams. In the Functional Programming class I am taking this fall I worked on a small project that consisted of writing code that randomly generated pictures of these diagrams for some "x" number of points. I was able to do this using my knowledge from the prior geometry class and that was really cool."
Like many other Willamette students, Carlson has been busy working on his senior thesis project. As students can tell you, this is a time-consuming process that gives each student a deep understanding of one topic or provides a great opportunity for statistical or analytical research.
"The main project I have been working on this year is my computer science senior thesis project," Carlson said. "I am working on making an Amazon Alexa skill for riders of the Washington State Ferries to use. My main goal with this project is to predict when the ferries will be late and feed this information to the user through an Alexa device. I was able to obtain a ton of past data on the ferries that contains information about what times of day the ferry was late and I want to train a forecasting model to try and make accurate future predictions based on this past data."
Carlson's project has both academic and practical implications. In addition to being a challenging project that requires Carlson to gather data and process it in a way that shows when ferries are most likely to be late, it also requires transferring those results into a format that can be used by Alexa. The practical implications are that a system similar to what Carlson is developing could be used to provide actual commuters with valuable data about when to arrive for the ferry.
As a student at Willamette, Carlson has been able to take classes in several departments in addition to computer science and mathematics. By reaching a decision to double major early in his time at WU made it easier to schedule other courses, but the basic nature of a liberal arts education and its well-rounded approach to building a class schedule also helped.
"One of the more special things for me at Willamette has been the opportunity to take a wide range of classes," Carlson commented. "I have really enjoyed some the religion, English, history, anthropology, etc. classes that I have had the opportunity to take in the past. Throughout my time in these classes I have been exposed to so many different perspectives and viewpoints of the world that have shaped me and my views of what's around me. Also, the challenging and diverse course work has given me a lot of important skills, specifically in writing. Through all this practice, I now feel I have a much stronger idea of what it means to take a position and argue for it when writing a paper. This is a skill that I know will be important throughout the rest of my life."
Once again there are ties between Carlson's efforts as a runner and his ability to excel in a wide range of academic endeavors.
"Keith believes in and embraces the entire process of fulfilling each and every requirement of being a committed runner. He simply does not cut corners," McGuirk said. "I would imagine that his success in the classroom is due to a very similar approach in the academic arena."
In addition to focusing on his own course work, Carlson has worked with other students to help them, too.
"One last computer science-related thing that has been really cool for me this semester has been tutoring others. I host drop in tutoring sessions and meet with people one on one," Carlson said. "I have never done anything like this until now and it has been an amazing experience for me. It is awesome to help others understand something that I really love, and tutoring has taught me a lot of new things that I did not fully understand my first time learning it."
Carlson plans to attend graduate school and earn a master's degree. He has already found an area of interest that he hopes to include in his advanced degree and then put to use once he's part of the work force.
"One of the things I am really interested in right now is computer security, and I would like to have the opportunity to take some specialized classes in computer security before going to work in the industry," Carlson commented. "It has just been exciting to put together an application (for graduated school) that I feel good about. I have had the opportunity to do a lot of cool things since starting at Willamette, and I think some of those things will set my application apart from others. It's exciting to just wait and see what happens. No matter where I end up I know it'll be a great opportunity and it is really exciting."
Those who have met Carlson in his role as an intercollegiate athlete or in his role as a Willamette student will be following closely to see his future accomplishments. McGuirk summed up in a few words how fellow students, coaches, teachers and administrators feel about Carlson.
"Keith Carlson ... great student, great athlete, great person, the ultimate team member," McGuirk said.