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New grants are aimed at improving CS teaching tools

8/21/2017 3:13:00 PM David Mercer, CS @ ILLINOIS

Learning to program can be, in a word, tough. The subject matter is dense, complex, and written in a language – well, languages – all its own.

For the teaching assistants who lead many CS @ ILLINOIS classes, the subject can also be difficult to teach. Instruction sometimes isn’t the top priority in a busy schedule built with graduation in mind.

Two recent grants awarded by the Provost’s Initiative on Teaching Advancement and another grant from the Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education’s Strategic Instructional Initiatives Program are aimed at finding solutions to these intersecting problems.

Teaching Assistant Professor Mattox Beckman
Teaching Assistant Professor Mattox Beckman
CS @ ILLINOIS Teaching Professor Mattox Beckman is working with several other people on campus to build on a successful trial run of what they call the Engineering Leadership Integrative Initiative for Teaching Excellence, or iELITE. They plan to use a combined $16,000 from the two programs.

The pilot effort put a dozen graduate Engineering students through a course during the last school year designed to give them tools to become better teachers, and better leaders. It was built, in part, on Beckman’s own experiences.

"The focus of the graduate students is their research," he said. "Being a TA, it’s not on anyone’s radar as much.”

Beckman is working with Electrical and Computer Engineering Lecturer Yuting Chen, Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning (or CITL) Education Specialist Lucas Anderson, Materials Science and Engineering Lecturer Matthew Goodman, Mechanical Science and Engineering Lecturer Blake E. Johnson, and Hannah Choi of CITL. They say they hope to change what it means to be a TA.

“So that our grad students don't see being a TA as… a burden, but as a real opportunity to gain valuable skills in organization, presentation, and leadership,” they wrote in one of their grant proposals.

In the coming school year, they plan to put about 70 Mechanical Science and Engineering students through the course, and eventually – after finding out what works and what doesn’t – hope to see it used across CS @ ILLINOIS and beyond.

“Our goal is that all the engineering departments will use it,” Beckman said.

Teaching Assistant Professor Geoffrey Herman
Teaching Assistant Professor Geoffrey Herman
While Beckman and his colleagues work on giving TAs stronger skills, Teaching Assistant Professor Geoffrey Herman plans to use $13,000 from the Provost’s Initiative on Teaching Advancement to find ways to improve CS teaching in general.

“What my project is aiming to do is understand the cognitive aspects of what makes programming hard,” Herman said. “One of the big challenges is something called expert blind spot.”

Sometimes expert-level knowledge leads you to see a concept in a way that others who lack that knowledge struggle to see – and to teach it in a way that might make perfect sense to someone with higher-level knowledge but confuse or even lose those who are just getting started.

“Experts have started to create meaning out of representations that novices haven’t built yet,” Herman said. “What we want to try to identify here is what professors of computer science fail to unpack, as well as fail to provide the tools students need for these things.”

Herman stresses he is not trying to “dumb down” those concepts, only find ways to make their presentation more clear.

The grant will finance a handful of small studies, which could fuel a later, larger study, Herman said.

Some other faculty have already shown interest, he said.

“We know that students still struggle – there’s always room for improvement,” Herman said.