Karen Reid: getting students to ask “but how does it really work?”

Computer science leader wins more recognition for her innovative teaching

Karen Reid from the University of Toronto’s department of computer science is the recipient of a 2013-2014 Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) Teaching Award. The award recognizes excellence in teaching and contributions that enhance the quality of higher education in Ontario.

Reid has been significantly involved with the development of marking software, a capstone course and high school outreach activities. She is an active member of the U of T Teaching Academy and the planning committee for the Teaching & Learning Symposium. In 2012, she received the U of T President’s Teaching Award.

Writer Jessica Lewis spoke with Reid about her love of teaching and the evolution of computer science education.

Why study computer science at U of T? 
There are great reasons to study computer science at U of T. We have an outstanding group of teaching faculty who provide students with a great learning environment in their first two years. The teaching faculty are responsible for a wide range of innovative programs both in the classroom and extra-curricular activities.

In their upper years, students have the opportunity to work with and learn from researchers at the top of their fields. Some of our best students go on to their own leading edge research both here and at top institutions around the world.

Being part of the Faculty of Arts & Science means that our students can combine their interests in computer science with a vast range of other disciplines. Finally, we have a terrific cohort of students from around the world engaged in all sorts of activities in addition to their courses, including running clubs, organizing and participating in hackathons, participating in mentorship and entrepreneurial programs, to name only a few.

Why did you become a teacher?
This is going to sound sappy, but there are such great moments with students: seeing a student get excited about an idea, watching a student grapple with a problem and being there when they finally get it, seeing the sense of accomplishment on a student’s face when they achieve more than they thought they could, and sometimes just helping a student successfully get to the end of a course.

What do you want students to get out of your classes?
The courses I teach are fundamentally about breaking down the programming abstractions that students have learned in their early years, and to study the mechanisms that implement these abstractions. I want students to constantly question and challenge their assumptions. I want them to ask, “but how does it really work?”

What kind of innovative projects have you been working on with students?
In an effort to streamline the submission and grading of student assignments, I have been working on a web application called MarkUs that allows students to submit assignments, enables instructors to create marking rubrics and assign work to TAs, and gives TAs a view where they can fill in the marking rubric and annotate the students’ work. 

The great thing about MarkUs is that it has been developed entirely by undergraduate students, many of whom have used MarkUs in their courses. Over the years, students have worked on MarkUs either through a paid grant in the summer, or more commonly as an independent study course credit where they learn about real world software development practices. More than 100 students have contributed to MarkUs so far.

How is computer science education evolving?
As computing becomes increasingly integrated into a wide range of disciplines, computer science education is adapting to meet the needs of a highly diverse group of students who arrive with radically different goals and backgrounds. We continually reinvent courses to address changing technologies and changing students. Although we have used online learning tools for many years, there is an increasing push to develop even more online resources for students. At the same time, we are introducing more active learning and small group learning into large courses.

How does it feel to win this award?
It is a genuine honour. Listening to the citations of the other award winners was truly humbling. It was strangely awkward to listen to my own citation, which highlighted what I have been involved in that at the time felt like just a normal part of my job, but in retrospect has had a significant impact.

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