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Herman's Unconventional Path Unveils Award-Worthy Teaching Skillset

10/9/2020 8:50:03 AM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

There was a time when Illinois CS professor Geoffrey Herman thought it might not be possible to hear his name in connection to a distinction like the 2020 IEEE Education Society Mac Van Valkenburg Early Career Teaching Award.

Geoffrey Herman
Geoffrey Herman

This thought process dates to when he started his career with The Grainger College of Engineering, a little more than five years ago. At that point, Herman's position didn’t include the typical teaching or research components. He wasn't even assigned to a specific department.

In short, his initial job with the College was, in his own words, “unconventional.”

Herman’s position fell under the College’s Strategic Instructional Innovations Program and the Teaching Professionals Program. He focused on sparking innovation and change in engineering education and believed it all came down to collaboration.

When he described this work to his mentors, he heard heartfelt concern in response. These instrumental figures in his life worried that his position may hamper his future in academia.

“I can’t express the number of times my mentors – the people who I love and respect – told me not to do what I’m doing,” Herman said with a laugh. “I absolutely value their opinion, and they asked me if I was certain this is what I wanted to do. My answer has always been the same. Yes, because this is what I’m passionate about.”

That unconventional background also built Herman’s approach to his current role as a teaching assistant professor with Illinois CS. It's clear that his methods in the classroom resonate with students. Additionally, faculty credit him with taking their teaching practice out of isolation and into collaboration with others.

For example, he’s worked closely with collaborators like Tim Bretl, professor of aerospace engineering, Matthew West, professor of mechanical science and engineering, and Illinois CS professor Craig Zilles on PrairieLearn. This tool, created for online assessment, revolutionizes the way students take exams and do homework.

Herman has built research projects off its use in his classrooms to help Bretl’s team as they continually develop and update the tool. It’s proven how faculty working together can positively impact the student experience.

These tenants of his work earned the respect of his peers and this year's Mac Van Valkenburg Early Career Teaching Award. As the award’s citation states, Herman was recognized “for his dedication to teaching, for his expertise in bridging research and practice in engineering education, and for his ability to inspire students and colleagues alike.”

Jonathan Makela
Jonathan Makela

The distinction resonates throughout Grainger Engineering, which houses previous winners and the namesake of the award. Both Jonathan Makela—Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs at Grainger Engineering and professor for Electrical and Computer Engineering—and Zilles—Illinois CS Associate Professor and Education Innovation Fellow—won it previously.

Mac Van Valkenburg served the College in the 1980s as a previous dean.

“Geoffrey earned this award and continues the impactful legacy our College has in engineering education,” Makela said. “We are so proud to have yet another one of our faculty recognized in the name of one of our eminent past deans. We’ve already witnessed Dean Van Valkenburg help UIUC revolutionize engineering education last century.

“Now, through the efforts of the Academy of Excellence in Engineering Education and faculty like Geoffrey, we are carrying on that mantle to pioneer what a 21st century engineering education looks like.”

To achieve this, Herman set clear goals to cement his relationship with students and continually push faculty collaboration forward.

He said that before any one of his courses begins, he tries to clarify why a student would take it. Rather than presenting a list of objectives, he distills that list down to one or two primary takeaways. Then he presents a way forward, so students can focus on those primary takeaways.

Hongxuan Chen, a senior undergraduate student at Illinois CS, joined Herman’s staff as a course assistant after taking CS233. Their work together on that course opened his eyes to the professor’s approach.

“Professor Herman is an awesome supervisor and leader,” Chen said. “He is always polite and amiable, and we don't feel any pressure when we propose an idea or point out a mistake. He even sends thank you notes to the staff at the end of each semester.”

Additionally, he cares about student motivation. Herman understands that pressure can build on a student, especially as classroom learning blends with research achievement later in a student’s career.

That’s why he believes motivation can have a great impact on graduate and PhD level execution.

To provide a path for achievement, Herman’s structure allows graduate level students to showcase their independent thinking skills. He provides the basic tenants of the course but tells his graduate students they must take ownership of the teaching. While this represents a high bar, he also provides the oversight necessary to help them reach that bar.

“I’m overjoyed that Geoffrey received the award! It’s a well-deserved recognition of his dedication as a teacher, impact as an advisor, and contributions as a researcher,” said Morgan Fong, a second year CS PhD student and teaching assistant who Herman advised to a Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) award. “Especially because research was new to me, he coached me through the GRFP from the National Science Foundation. He provided great insights as we went through multiple rounds of revisions."

Craig Zilles
Craig Zilles

Herman has distinguished himself between his approach in the classroom and high level of research focused on Computers and Education.

He wasn’t so certain that was going to be the result a handful of years ago, but it was the potential his mentors saw in him.

“Professor Herman is deeply knowledgeable about how people learn and excels in translating that knowledge into effective learning experiences even in large courses. He is tireless in his effort to continuously improve his course, and I love having him as a colleague that I can learn from,” said Zilles – who, along with Makela, nominated Herman for the award.