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Heeren Receives Teacher of the Year Award

7/20/2016 3:56:00 PM By Laura Schmitt, CS @ ILLINOIS

CS Senior Lecturer Cinda Heeren has been named the recipient of the 2015 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Illinois-Indiana Section Teacher of the Year Award. Along with a certificate and cash prize, she’ll present an invited talk at the ASEE sectional conference in April 2016 at Western Illinois University.

Cinda Heeren
Cinda Heeren
Cinda Heeren

According to ASEE Award Chair Carmine Polito, a Civil Engineering Professor at Valparaiso University, Heeren earned the award for her creative teaching methodologies, positive impact on students, development of innovative courses, and work in community outreach.  “The [CS @ ILLINOIS] community should realize how lucky they and their students are to have someone as talented and dedicated as Cinda as part of their team,” Polito said. “But I suspect that they already know that.”

Heeren currently teaches CS 225: Data Structures and Programming Principles, a challenging course that all CS and computer engineering majors must take. At the start of this semester, nearly 700 students were enrolled, Heeren said, but about 70 of them dropped the class during the first few weeks.

Thanks to Heeren’s initiative, those students don’t have to give up on their computer science aspirations. Instead, they are invited to take an evening remedial class to prepare them properly so they can retake the course the following semester.

“I feel like if they have to drop the course because they’re not thriving, this is too big of a hit to take when you’re a sophomore,” she said. “[The remedial class] gives them a smaller community of people that are like them, and that’s OK. It’s nice to provide students with that level of attention at such a crisis point for them.”

In the Spring 2015 semester, Heeren and CS Teaching Assistant Professor Wade Fagen piloted a new course, CS 205: Data Driven Discovery, where the students learn to collect various types of data—images, text, numeric, geographic, or integrated—analyze the data, and then produce a visualization to illustrate what they learned from the data. Nineteen students, all of whom are majoring in something other than CS, currently take this course.

“This [CS 205] was the first course that made me feel confident in using coding to do research,” said Tim Krock, a junior economics major, who created a National Language Toolkit data visualization that identified the characters of a book and plotted their paths through the story. “It brought me out of my shell as a programmer. I was able to go do some very cool projects largely due to the guidance offered in this class.”

Commenting on Heeren’s teaching style, Krock added: “She often makes class feel as much like a conversation as a lecture. She can crack jokes without breaking the rhythm of the lecture, and she’s super approachable for questions or advice.”

In addition to her innovative teaching and course development, Heeren oversees the CS @ ILLINOIS GEMS camp, which brings in middle school girls each summer to teach them computing and other STEM skills. Heeren took charge of the camp in 2012, when its director at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) on campus retired.

Since then, Heeren and her CS staff have expanded the free camp from 25 students to 150 students, and she and her team plan to double the size of the camp and offer it to high school students next summer.

An alumna of the CS department, Heeren (PhD ’04) jokes about being born to teach—both of her parents were teachers, and her uncles were professors. “Teaching is very much part of my cultural heritage,” she said. “In terms of computer science, I’m also a poster child for NSF diversity programs.”

While in high school, Heeren participated in a six-week summer science program at Colorado State University, where she took several programming courses. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was so cool,” she said.

A decade later, Heeren was teaching statistics, math, and computer science at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo when she had the opportunity to pursue a doctorate at Illinois thanks to the NSF-funded Doctoral Incentive Program.

As a faculty member at Illinois, Heeren has received several teaching awards, including the 2014 CS @ ILLINOIS Distinguished Educator Award and the 2014 College of Engineering Rose Award for Teaching Excellence. In addition, she was named a College of Engineering Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education Fellow.