Skip to main content
Joan Cotter
June 19, 2023

Alumnus was there for first ECE computer class

Written By: Jason Daley


Electrical engineering alumnus Joan (Donohoo) Cotter (BSEE ’59) was on campus for a pivotal event, though at the time she couldn’t understand its importance. She was a student in the first computer engineering class offered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Electrical Engineering, later renamed the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Cotter was born in Cuba City, Wisconsin, the oldest of nine children. Her family later moved to Madison, and when she was in high school, Joan’s father ordered a booklet from the back of a magazine explaining engineering for her younger brother, Dan. Joan, then a high school junior, looked through the booklet too. “I decided I was going to be a chemical engineer, since I dearly loved chemistry at the time,” she says. “And then I did physics the next year and I dearly love that, too. So I decided to go into electrical engineering because it had more math.”

Cotter was the first woman in her family to attend college and was just one of ten women in the College of Engineering her freshman year in 1955. She was also the only woman out of 300 students in electrical engineering.

Because she excelled in math, she tested out of the first-year college algebra course, giving her the freedom to take more electives. That’s why, when she was a junior, she signed up for a new class on computers, then an emerging technology, taught by electrical engineering professor Charles Davidson, now considered a pioneer of early computing.

While Cotter found the class interesting, she says it introduced concepts that we all now take for granted. “In that class, we never even saw a computer,” says Cotter. “In those days there weren’t even monitors, just banks of lights.”

The students learned about binary, the primary language of computers, and vacuum tubes, which were used for logic circuits. Cotter says she wasn’t particularly interested in vacuum tubes because she knew transistors would soon replace them, but otherwise enjoyed the material. “The class was pretty basic,” she remembers. “Nobody would offer a class like that today.”

Nevertheless, she developed an interest in computing. The following summer, Cotter worked at the Office of Naval Research doing technical drawings. One of the only computers on campus was located in the office, so during her down time she would chat with the people doing calculations for the computer who worked on paper spreadsheets and with mechanical calculators.

After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering as well as options in engineering physics, nuclear engineering and professional engineering, Cotter relocated to St. Paul to work as an engineer at UNIVAC (now Unisys), a company producing one of the earliest commercial computers.

At UNIVAC, Cotter worked on a magnetic drum data storage device. She also did simulation programming, which made it possible to test the capability of a new computer being designed on an existing computer.

When her first child was born a few years later, Cotter resigned. But she soon became deeply interested in education, eventually becoming a Montessori teacher and founding the first Montessori preschool in Hutchinson, Minnesota, a city west of the Twin Cities. But, like any engineer, she couldn’t stop tinkering; she began to update Montessori math, so she left the school to earn a MACI in curriculum and instruction and then a PhD in mathematics education from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.

She then began developing a curriculum called RightStart Math for elementary and middle schoolers. She currently runs a company that develops, publishes, and markets the curriculum with her daughter Kathleen and which employs 20 people. During the pandemic, the RightStart Math homeschooling option experienced massive growth. The RightStart Math classroom option is growing today.

“When you look at the statistics of kids who are homeschooled, most of them do not go into the hard sciences because they don’t have the math background,” Cotter says. “But if they’re using my math program they are going into the hard sciences, which is very, very gratifying. So I’m helping out the engineering profession in a little different way.”

While Cotter is no longer directly involved in computer engineering, the interest still runs in the family; she currently has a grandnephew researching quantum computing at the University of Minnesota. And, she hopes, many RightStart students who have majored in computer science and engineering.