For years, Illinois Computer Science, like many other major computer science departments, has formally structured its research into areas that allow for specialized focus on each topic to tap into resources, allow for fervent discussion of progress and opportunities and ensure coordination between faculty, staff and students.
Equally important, from a strategic and logistical point of view, the department has now introduced the Teaching Zone.
Its mission: “The CS teaching area is made up of award-winning, creative, world-class faculty who lead a diverse set of high-impact education and computing initiatives. By creating and sharing innovative and inclusive educational practices, visualizations, technologies, and transformative learning experiences, the teaching field is helping to redefine education in Illinois and beyond.
Margaret Fleck, a teaching professor and director of undergraduate programs, pitched the idea. Administrative support for his idea came from Professor Abel Bliss and CS Department Head Nancy M. Amato as well as Mahesh Viswanathan, Professor and Associate Director of Academics in the Department.
The formation of this then passed into the capable hands of Teaching Associate Professor Eric Shaffer, and the teaching area will be chaired by Teaching Professor, Gies RC Evans Innovation Fellow and CITL Fellow Lawrence Angrave.
Shaffer explained the purpose of the region through a unique perspective, as he has been a CS faculty member since 2014 and a student before – earning both his BS and PhD here.
“If I look at the difference between when I was a student and now – and I was very happy with my studies here – I think one thing that has improved considerably is that we have put a lot more effort into trying to understand how to teach things well, and not just what to teach,” Shaffer said. “I think it’s not always obvious to people, especially to the current generation, that computing is still a relatively young field.As a result, most of the other disciplines at the university have a much longer tradition of teaching.
“Because of this, I think computing went through a period where the focus was much more on what to teach rather than how best to teach it.”
As the teaching of CS has progressed—Shaffer said it relied on more active learning techniques and testing for mastery—Illinois CS has also strengthened practice support.
More instructors led to fewer classes per instructor and a higher level of subject matter expertise. The increase in technology has also contributed to the progression of teaching as developments such as Angrave’s ClassTranscribe system are now used in multiple classrooms across CS, Statistics and on campus where videos are available in a learning-centric interface. To continue to meet students’ accessibility needs, ClassTranscribe not only provides subtitles in multiple languages, but can also generate lecture notes for lesson videos.
“But we don’t stop innovating in Illinois,” Angrave said. “For example, can we improve learning by using AI to generate questions from video content?”
The purpose of the teaching area is to have a more formal outlet for discussions, to increase efficiency as new ideas gain support and are implemented.
“We can now communicate the educational goals the faculty have to department leadership in a streamlined way,” said Angrave, Area Chair. “The goal is to increase our organization behind instruction to make things better and take on even more challenges.”
His support has already taken many forms, as CS leadership paved the way for a wide range of current faculty to reach 23 faculty.
In addition, there are valuable outlets for teaching professors, such as the second Illinois Computer Science Summer Teaching Workshop held virtually in August. The conference invited a wide range of computer science educators with a simple motivation to showcase interactive approaches to teaching best practices and showcasing new ideas.
“We are committed to attracting the best teaching faculty to our teaching faculty stream, and we see the development of the teaching field as an important step in supporting our faculty,” said Amato. “I am continually impressed by the amazing innovations our faculty bring to their courses and other teaching and mentoring activities. They have fully embraced and embody our departmental mission to deliver inclusive and excellent computing education at scale.
“The creation of this zone recognizes these accomplishments and provides a visible home and support for these activities in our departmental administrative structure.”
And it’s all done with the student in mind, according to Shaffer.
Although he conducts research in the areas of visualization, mixed reality, scientific computing, and education, it was his love of teaching that became the cornerstone of Shaffer’s academic career at Illinois CS.
His courses include topics such as interactive computer graphics, production computer graphics, numerical methods, virtual reality, and scientific visualization.
But his dedication goes far beyond the subject he is currently teaching.
“First of all, I work with some really amazing students who are doing amazing things in the field. The idea that you’ve helped them achieve things that they’re glad they did, it’s great,” Shaffer said, “Beyond that, I’m also learning. The field of computer science is constantly changing, and because of that, the courses I teach are never the same, even one semester.” to another. I am constantly updating myself and trying to create new challenges.
“It represents my chance, alongside the students, to continue learning.”
Through a dedicated effort to develop a collaborative and innovative space, CS teachers continue to forge ahead – and the teaching area is just one more example of that effort.
“Another thing that I find inspiring is the fact that I have the privilege of working with excellent instructors. You can’t help but feel compelled to match them – their creativity and innovative methods,” Shaffer said. “It is, for me, a manifestation of the investment our department is making in teaching.”
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