Illinois Computer Science Summer Teaching Workshop Presents Innovative Approaches to Teaching the Subject

7/25/2022 10:46:58 AM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

From August 15-16, the second-ever Illinois Computer Science Summer Teaching Workshop will take place virtually, with a straightforward motivation to engage the computer science teaching community with an interactive approach to teaching best practices and presenting new ideas.

Abdussalam Alawini
Abdussalam Alawini

Building upon last year’s inaugural event, the organizing committee said their hopes for this year’s workshop lie in a series of concepts that make the event relevant to so many in the profession: challenging the status quo, proposing new directions, debunking existing assumptions, advocating for new approaches, and presenting surprising or preliminary results.

Building upon a strength that exists right here at Illinois CS, the organizing committee wants to tap into this department’s emphasis on teaching methods while inviting others to share their own insights.

More information and registration information can be found on the workshop website.

Last year, about 200 attendees consumed content from 16 speakers. This year, the organizing committee is hoping for even more attendees to view the 19 talks as well as a virtual program filled with networking and collaborative opportunities.

“I clearly remember how this whole conversation started before last year’s workshop,” said Abdu Alawini, Illinois CS professor and organizing committee chair. “We, as instructional faculty, were trying to figure out ways to disseminate the CS teaching innovations we have cultivated right here. Someone asked, ‘Why don’t we start up a workshop in which we encourage our own faculty to show the world what we're doing?’

“In the process, we expanded on that thought to also invite others to speak, so we can learn from their perspectives in the same space.”

Over recent years, teaching computer science has adapted to several changes. And Illinois CS has been at the forefront of a response. 

For example, Illinois CS professor Craig Zilles helped revolutionize how students take exams and do homework with PrairieLearn, a tool created for online assessment. Taking that a step further, another Illinois CS professor and invited workshop speaker, Geoffrey Challen, will present the website he built solely to automate one of his own courses.

The three faculty members who comprise this workshop’s organizing committee also fully understand the ongoing changes in teaching CS.

Alawini joined the faculty at Illinois CS in 2018, and quickly learned just how engrained teaching innovation is here.

“I was challenged and pushed to innovate here from the moment I started teaching my primary course in database systems,” Alawini said. “When I began the course, my exams were paper based. There was no collaborative learning component; instead, it was a traditional, one hour lecture. In a few short semesters, I’ve adapted this class to the point it's fully automated with online assessments and collaborative learning activities.

“Along the way, I've learned a lot from my colleagues. But I’ve also learned so much from my students – many of whom pointed me to our very own PrairieLearn system for online assessment, for which they were developers.”

Yael Gertner
Yael Gertner

Meanwhile, fellow Illinois CS professor Yael Gertner joined the faculty here in 2020, and she has been teaching in the iCAN program.

Designed for students with a bachelor’s degree in any field other than computer science, iCAN is a one year graduate-certificate program that serves as a unique entry for those with an interest in the computing sector. Its goal is broadening participation in computing with a curriculum that prioritizes collaboration and mentorship and that includes a capstone experience.

“A primary goal of iCAN is to empower the students by teaching the fundamentals, so they can be successful in computing and their chosen path. We want our students to feel included and that they have much to contribute to the field.”

Over a similar period, professor Brad Solomon has witnessed tremendous growth in his data structures course.

Coming to Illinois CS from a school where 100 students per class was considered large, Solomon has had to learn how to address a group that will include 1,2000 students in the upcoming fall semester.

Brad Solomon
Brad Solomon

“The trick is to merge that reality with a lot of my teaching interests – things like communicating feedback, adding personal interactions, allowing for group projects, and providing clear opportunities for mentorship and guidance,” Solomon said. “My goal is to try to account for this and add resources, so we can staff a course like this with an opportunity to still engage at the individual level despite the high number of students.”

The theme of this year’s workshop – Feedback, Online Assessment, and Building an Inclusive Classroom – builds off a lot of the classroom experiences here at Illinois CS. Similar notions and challenges are also commonly expressed by instructional faculty at other schools, too.

“This means faculty – from teaching faculty to tenure track faculty – and all people who teach computer science are welcome,” Alawini said. “The workshop is relevant to graduate students who help teach courses, or, really anyone who wants to learn about the field and how best to practice it.

“Even if you aren’t a CS teacher, but your research focuses on CS education, we hope you’ll attend.”