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CS Professors Prepare to Enhance Engineering Teaching Through SIIP Grants

11/20/2020 2:37:28 PM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

In 2012, The Grainger College of Engineering began awarding Strategic Instructional Innovations Program (SIIP) Grants. This effort centers around a simple notion: providing new paths for creative, collaborative and impactful teaching, in much the same way faculty conduct research throughout the College.

This year, seven projects involving Illinois Computer Science faculty now benefit from SIIP Grants and Grainger Engineering’s Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education (AE3). One more CS project has reached its final stage and prepared its final report with SIIP. These efforts range from a technological approach to collaborative learning to better understanding the needs of handicapped students.

Facilitating Adoption of Collaborative Activities using Computer-Based Tools

Mariana Silva
Mariana Silva
Abdussalam Alawini
Abdussalam Alawini

Illinois CS professors Abdussalam Alawini and Mariana Silva followed different academic paths until, eventually, becoming teaching faculty within the same department. As it turns out, they also have a similar eye toward the future of CS instruction.

Alawini teaches database courses, something he wanted to do since he began pondering a career in academia. Ideally, he said, he would like to speak in these classes for about 20 percent of the time and have the students engage in projects and discussion 80 percent of the time.

Thus far, he said, the actual ratio is flipped.

Meanwhile, Silva joined Illinois CS after five years as a lecturer for the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering within the College. In her previous experience, the students engaged and discussed much like Alawini wished students in CS engaged.

More SIIP Grant projects involving Illinois CS faculty and students


Remote testing with PrairieLearn


Learning by Immersion: Creating Virtual Reality Labs for Electromagnetism Courses

  • Workgroup: Raluca Ilie (ECE), Eric Shaffer (CS), Erhan Kudeki (ECE), Cynthia D’Angelo (Educational Psychology)
  • Purpose: This team will support students who struggle with their understanding of electromagnetism theory by developing 3D visualizations of abstract physics in an immersive, exploratory, and engaging environment.
  • Related: Read about how VR is being used in ECE 329 (Fields and Waves I).

Developing Intervention Methods that Improve Visuospatial Skills of Engineering Students

  • Workgroup: Brian Woodard (AE), Gretchen Forman (GFX), Molly Goldstein (ISE), Julia Laystrom-Woodard (AE), Tiffany Li (CS PhD student), Michael Philpott (MechSE), Angie Wolters (WIE), Ziang Xiao (CS PhD student)
  • Purpose: This team is developing computerized training modules to enhance students’ visuospatial skills to be implemented in three large engineering design courses.

“CS students feel this innate sense of privacy. Leave no doubt, though, they are amazingly talented students,” Silva said. “But when they build the code, when they do the programming, there is a sense that they cannot share their code.”

Together the instructors proposed a project to “develop and improve existing computer-based tools to facilitate collaborative and active learning work inside and outside of the classroom,” which has now been awarded with a SIIP Grant.

The workgroup includes fellow CS professors Mattox Beckman, Geoffrey Herman and Eric Shaffer. It also features collaborators David Mussulman of Engineering IT, Andre Schleife of Materials Science and Engineering as well as Jennifer Amos and Karin Jensen of Bioengineering.

Already, Silva said that she witnessed increased collaboration and engagement as she tried these offerings to smaller classes last spring.

Alawini said that they also extended PrairieLearn to support group assessment this semester for in-class group activities. They applied this for classes with more than 400 students, and he said they’ve received positive feedback from students already.

Next up, work continues on developing an instructor-facing dashboard to help track team collaboration and identify teams that need help.


Understanding the Needs and Learning Pathways of Students with Disabilities

Hongye Liu
Hongye Liu

When Illinois CS professor Hongye Liu interviewed for her current job about a year and a half ago, she made sure to express her desire to work with students who have a disability.

Liu found a welcome ear in Department Head Nancy M. Amato and, soon after that, eager collaborators in fellow CS professor Lawrence Angrave and Bioengineering’s Amos. Excitement grew quickly, as an opportunity to expand upon the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s sterling background in improving conditions and access for students with disabilities presented itself.

“We started to do research in fall 2019 and found out in literature from a University of Wisconsin study that the majority of students with accessibility issues do not report to the university or the instructor,” Liu said. “In the Wisconsin study, 75 percent of students with disabilities said they did not report. Then we investigated the Chancellor’s senior exit poll – which surveyed across the Urbana-Champaign campus – and we found that 56 percent of students with disabilities didn’t register for support services.”

In response, Liu and her collaborators turned to SIIP.

Thanks to the grant, which they received for the coming year, the researchers plan to: “Identify potential course improvement opportunities to help students with disabilities. Inspired by the Universal Design for Learning (the group) will seek to understand how students interact with course components and how they perceive the value of multiple representations of course materials and multiple ways of communications.”

“Accomplishing what we seek with this project means that maybe the idea is right. Maybe we’ll find new and exciting directions for the College to help students with disabilities,” Liu said. “This would be a fulfilling accomplishment for me, as my faith guided me to begin a project like this by teaching me more about empathy.”


Interdisciplinary Methods for Research Computing: A Course for New Researchers

Neal Davis
Neal Davis

Dating back to his own graduate school experience with Grainger Engineering – where current Illinois CS professor Neal Davis earned a master’s and PhD in Nuclear Engineering – a common theme comes from the professor’s work in both research and teaching.

“There’s a human element to learning, and I’ve always been fascinated with the problem of creativity in the classroom,” Davis said. “Watching people solve problems is an endless source of fascination for me.”

Over the years, one of the things that he has consistently seen, that is at odds with knowledge seekers, is the hurdle that computing poses. Researchers who don’t have a computing background often do not understand the ways in which computing can benefit their research.

Davis believes that if they were better prepared, this could all change.

To do so, he earned a SIIP Grant to investigate “a pilot course covering computational research skills for researchers across many disciplines.” Davis has previous experience within the Computational Science and Engineering program, where he was a training coordinator that worked toward a similar result. He said this course “reifies some of the practices we taught as short workshops with CSE into assessed, creditable form.”

His team of faculty collaborators represents areas from across the entire University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus, including:

  • Jake Bowers of Political Science and Statistics at Illinois
  • Andre Schleife of Materials Science and Engineering
  • Rich Sowers of Industrial & Enterprise Systems Engineering
  • Elizabeth Wickes of School of Information Sciences

The course description is already listed for spring 2021 registration.

“Success in this project means we’ve created a baseline through which everyone beginning the research process can learn how best to interact with data or computing,” Davis said.


Revising the CS Introductory Programming Sequence

Geoffrey Challen
Geoffrey Challen

Over the years, separate Illinois CS faculty have come to a similar realization: There is a better way to provide a proper onramp for undergraduate students starting the program.

Coming into this fall 2020 semester, professor G. Carl Evans found one inefficiency in particular that stood out to him. The path some students, particularly non-CS majors, took led to gaps in their progress. 

These students entered and spent the first semester in CS 125 with professor Geoffrey Challen to learn initial programming skills. The next course, though, didn’t allow students to continue enhancing these skills before they got to CS 225. At that point, Evans picked up programming with them again, albeit with students whose familiarity with these skills may have faded during the months in between.

After earning a SIIP Grant this year, Evans paired with fellow CS faculty including Challen, Margaret Fleck, Michael Nowak, Michael Woodley, and Craig Zilles. This allowed for a more cohesive way to bridge the gaps with students in mind.

The solution that the group is advancing toward is a new course sequence:

  • Semester 1: CS 124 (Introduction to Computer Science I), 3 credit hours, taught by Challen
  • Semester 2: CS 128 (Introduction to Computer Science II), a new 3 credit hour course taught by Nowak that replaces CS 126, and CS 173
  • Semester 3: CS 222 (Software Design Studio), a new 1 credit hour course replacing CS 242, and CS 225

Next steps include a limited pilot in spring 2021 for CS 128, through which student feedback will help fine-tune the course infrastructure Nowak designs.

“This will also provide more entry points for incoming students with different amounts of prior experience,” Challen said. “It’s also exciting that this project brings together a community of instructors to think holistically about the introductory sequence, rather than just focusing on our individual courses.”


ELITE TA Training SIIP Final Report

Mattox Beckman
Mattox Beckman

Back in 2017, Illinois CS professor Mattox Beckman earned a SIIP Grant with ECE’s Yiting Chen, MechSE’s Blake E. Johnson and others on the Engineering Leadership Integrative Initiative for Teaching Excellence (iELITE).

Their pilot course was designed to provide graduate Engineering students with tools to become better teachers.

Beckman said then that their goal was to help students see that being a TA isn’t a “burden but a real opportunity to gain valuable skills in organization, presentation, and leadership.”

Three years later, they will present their final report on this work to SIIP. Their course remained the bedrock of the work conducted through iELITE, as evidenced by the 186 students enrolled this semester.

“The course is definitely designed to teach the TAs how to be good teachers, but also how to be leaders,” Beckman said. “The topics we cover are different each week, and different students connect to different topics. Last week our class was about growth mindset and the constructivist theory of learning, and students said in the online chat that this helped them.

“Working with Yuting and Blake has been an amazing experience. We are all committed to the success of the program and willing to try new things.”

From here, Beckman said they are moving to a model where each department that uses the course will fund one TA or graduate hourly to help run the course.