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Fay Cobb Payton: Bringing Content, Context to the Classroom

While teaching in one of her IT courses any semester, you can see Fay Cobb Payton, Ph.D., professor of information technology at the NC State Poole College of Management, go quickly from intense concentration to expansive smile and, occasionally, a quick high-five for a student who found the solution during a classroom exercise.

Her expressions reflect the deep passion that Payton has for teaching and research, and that passion led to her receiving the 2016 Educator of the Year Award from the North Carolina Technology Association this fall.

What drives the passion?

“I bore easily,” she said, speaking frankly, “so I think a bit of the passion comes from the fact that I am looking at what’s new and want to share that with my students.” Her goal is to provide real world learning experiences, “so when they go out to an employer, grad school or start an enterprise on their own, they know.”

In her teaching and research, Payton draws on the STEM industry experience she had gained prior to getting her doctorate and starting her academic career. That included various IT related roles within IBM as a programmer and systems engineer; at TIME as a logistic specialist and consultant, noting that “it’s bigger than the magazine;” and at Ernst & Young, working in one of its national health care IT practices.

While a doctoral student at Case Western Reserve University, studying information and business systems, Payton stayed connected with industry by working at the Cleveland Clinic. These industry experiences that now enable her to ‘bring context and content to the classroom,” she said.

“Being in the tech space is one way of making sure that what I do in the classroom opens doors to more opportunities for the students when they go out into the world,” she said.

“The best way to simulate real world is to give them real world, to bring current topics into the classroom. This is one of the things I really aim for.”

Payton’s applied learning approach means that, “at times, they won’t find the answers in the book, and a lot of times it leads to ambiguity and they don’t always like that,” she said. However, former students have reported back that they recognize the value of those experiences. An email message from one former student that she received this summer attests to that. The student wrote, “I want to tell you that I’m in training (at a new corporate IT role). Remember all the data base stuff you put us through? I’m sitting here (now) doing all this stuff and understanding it, and I’m thanking you.”

In teaching, Payton said, “We measure what happens in the classroom, but we should be looking at what happens downstream.”


Payton’s favorite course is the practicum, the IT concentration’s capstone course.

“I call it structured chaos,” she said, noting that in the course, students “go out and are doing what they learned.” They also learn to collaborate, working in teams that may not include their friends, but they know they have a task to do.

“They’re not there to deal with personalities; there’s no text book answer. It’s all projects. They bear down on the information that I provide and we work through it with the client. It’s real life, a big production, and I know that at the end of the semester, I see where lives have been transformed and they can grab hold of their creative side,” Payton said.

With the opening of the Hunt Library on Centennial Campus, her practicum students now give their final presentations to their project sponsors in the library’s visualization lab, giving them experience using the latest presentation technology as they showcase their practicum project results.

Her students are as diverse in the classroom as they may be in a corporate setting, including students majoring in IT, finance, marketing. She also gets the occasional graduate student, noting “that makes for interesting observations.”


Payton, now in her 17th year teaching at Poole College, has seen a good deal of change in technology. She recalls teaching data and knowledge management, now considered part of the college’s new honors analytics track. But it’s “always problem solving, being able to tell a story from data, as I also stress in my Database Management class.”

Cloud-based computing is adding another layer to the IT environment, as students need to learn how to access the data. Because organizations use different methodologies in doing so, Payton stresses methodologies in her systems analysis and design class, “so that that students understand it when they enter the workforce.”

Some students have been gaining real world experience in positions within NC State’s Office of Information Technology, as interns in the Provost’s Experiential Practicum program.

Recently, six teams of Payton’s students worked with the campus OIT staff on their purchasing system, looking at the technology being used and making recommendations for improving the flow in their requisition processes. The OIT leadership team adopted their recommendation. Two other teams of students from her IT Capstone course worked with the NC State Entrepreneurship Clinic while another two student teams worked on a project for Arts NC State.

Another group of of Payton’s IT Capstone students entered the 2016 Teradata University (TUN) Analytics Competition, a global competition that focused on big data and analytics this year. Two team members, Akram Al-Kholaidi and Carlos Alva, were 2016 TUN Honorable Mention recipients. (Note: This is corrected from our initial post.)

About her NCTA award, Payton said, “I was quite shocked” when she heard she was being recognized.

In talking about the award, she always turned the conversation back to the classroom, and especially the capstone class, where, she said, “Great things happen.” That includes conversations with her students.

“I want to hear the students, their thoughts, opinions, and to hear about their experiences, especially if they are working part-time,” she said. “I think it’s exciting when they chime in and have something to say that’s counterintuitive. It’s okay that we don’t all agree. Sometimes, there is no ‘the’ answer.”

Matthew McCaskill, a senior majoring in business administration with an IT concentration, said (in an email interview with Poole College communications) that he “is glad to have had her as a professor” before he graduated.

He had taken her database management (BUS 440) course because he “wanted to experience a wide variety of activities available in the information system management career. BUS 440 gave me a newfound passion that I was previously unaware of. Dr. Payton’s class allowed me to understand the importance of data and how crucial it is to organize/clean data.”

This and other IT-related courses that he has taken at Pool College “are aligned with my career path, because I have a passion for technology and business. Being able to help people become more efficient in their processes or analytical in their decision making is something that I enjoy thoroughly,” McCaskill said.

The BUS 440 course also provided experiences that he can discuss with recruiters, including leadership and technical skills. “With each group assignment, I had to learn what the strengths and weaknesses of my group members were and about myself,” he said.

McCaskill offers a bit of advice for other students considering the course. “Dr. Payton’s course is not one where you can come to class and daydream. The lectures, readings, and assignments are all needed to fully understand the concepts. Dr. Payton’s final project feels meaningful. There are many things that you will learn related to IT in this class, and I don’t regret any of it.”


In addition to her teaching schedule, Payton is active in research, focusing on the areas of health care IT and informatics, user interface design, STEM participation, diversity & inclusion, and systems implementation.

View additional photos on Flickr | Dr. Fay Cobb Payton and students in IT Lab class session.