Workshop course

Illinois Computer Science Summer Teaching Workshop presents innovative approaches to teaching the subject | Computing

From August 15-16, the second Illinois Computer Science Summer Teaching Workshop will be held virtually, with a direct motivation to engage the computer science educator community with an interactive approach to teaching best practices and showcasing new ideas.

Abdussalam Alawini

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

Building on a strength that exists right here at Illinois CS, the organizing committee wants to build on this department’s focus on teaching methods while inviting others to share their own ideas.

More information can be found on the workshop website, which will soon feature a way to register.

Last year, approximately 200 attendees consumed content from 16 speakers. This year, the organizing committee hopes that even more attendees will be able to view all 19 talks as well as a virtual program filled with networking and collaboration opportunities.

“I clearly remember how this whole conversation started before last year’s workshop,” said Abdu Alawini, an Illinois computer science professor and chair of the organizing committee. “We, as teaching teachers, were trying to find ways to spread the educational innovations in computing that we have cultivated here. Someone asked, ‘Why not start a workshop where we encourage our own teachers to show the world what we do?

“In the process, we developed this thought to also invite others to speak, so that we could learn from their perspectives in the same space.”

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

For example, Illinois computer science professor Craig Zilles helped revolutionize the way students take exams and complete assignments with PrairieLearn, a tool created for online assessment. Going deeper, another Illinois computer science professor and guest speaker, Geoffrey Challen, will present the website he created just to automate one of his own courses.

The three faculty members who make up the organizing committee for this workshop also fully understand the changes taking place in computer science education.

Alawini joined the faculty at Illinois CS in 2018 and quickly realized how entrenched educational innovation is here.

“I was challenged and driven to innovate here from the moment I started teaching my major database systems course,” Alawini said. “When I started the course, my exams were on paper. There was no collaborative learning component; it was more like a traditional hour-long lecture. In a few short semesters, I adapted this course to the point that it is fully automated with online assessments and collaborative learning activities.

“Along the way, I learned a lot from my colleagues. But I also learned a lot from my students – many of whom referred me to our own PrairieLearn system for online assessment, for which they were the developers.

Yael Gertner
Yael Gertner

Meanwhile, Illinois CS professor Yael Gertner joined the faculty here in 2020, and she taught in the iCAN program.

Designed for students with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than computer science, iCAN is a one-year graduate certificate program that serves as a single entry for those interested in the computer industry. Its goal is to broaden participation in IT with a curriculum that prioritizes collaboration and mentorship and includes a capstone experience.

“One of the main goals of iCAN is to empower students by teaching them the basics, so they can be successful in IT and in their chosen path. We want our students to feel included and have a lot to contribute to the field.

During a similar period, Professor Brad Solomon has experienced phenomenal growth in his Data Structures course.

Coming to Illinois CS from a school where 100 students per class was considered important, Solomon 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 providing feedback, adding personal interactions, allowing for group projects, and providing clear opportunities for mentorship and guidance,” Solomon said. “My goal is to try to take that into account and add resources, so that we can equip a course like this with the ability to continue to engage on an individual level despite the high number of students. “

This year’s workshop theme—Feedback, Online Assessment, and Creating an Inclusive Classroom—is based on many classroom experiences here at Illinois CS. Similar notions and challenges are also commonly expressed by faculty at other schools.

“That means faculty — from teaching faculty to tenure-track faculty — and anyone who teaches computer science is welcome,” Alawini said. “The workshop is for graduate students who help teach classes, or anyone who wants to learn more about the field and how best to practice it.

“Even if you’re not a computer science teacher, but your research is about computer science education, we hope you’ll get involved.”