Computer Science departments welcome five new faculty members

U of T hopes to advance robotics research

Computer Science departments welcome five new faculty members

Five new faculty members were appointed to U of T’s Computer Science departments for the 2018–2019 academic year, as the university moves to increase its commitment to computer science research, particularly in robotics.

The researchers come from a variety of backgrounds and have diverse research interests that encompass fields like robotics, machine learning, human-robot interaction, and parallel algorithms.

Dr. Animesh Garg, one of the new Assistant Professors in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at UTM, was previously a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University.

In an email interview with The Varsity, Garg wrote that he chose to accept a position at U of T in part because of collaborations with industry leaders such as Google, NVIDIA, and Uber.

“The opportunity to work in such a dynamic environment composed of academic leaders, industrial partners and most of all inspiring students made for a great combination for a young academic such as myself to establish a thriving research lab,” continued Garg.

His research focuses on the fields of generalizable autonomy for robotics and “involves an integration of perception, machine learning and control in the real world.”

Dr. Maryam Mehri Dehnavi, a new Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science hailing from Rutgers University, wrote in an email to The Varsity that she was drawn to U of T because of its stellar academic environment and the city.

Dehnavi also pointed to the department’s focus beyond “just current trendy areas” and its investment in long-term research.

“We aim to significantly improve the performance of large-scale data-intensive problems on parallel and cloud computing platforms by building high-performance frameworks,: said Dehnavi on her research. “To build these frameworks we formulate scalable mathematical methods and develop domain-specific compilers and programming languages.”

Dr. Joseph Jay Williams is also a new Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science, previously from the National University of Singapore.

In an interview with The Varsity, he said that he is excited to join U of T due to the unique position he was offered in doing research that “applies computer science techniques to educational research.” In particular, Williams is excited to work on cross-disciplinary collaborations, such as with the Department of Psychology and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Williams’ research focuses on creating “intelligent self-improving systems that conduct dynamic experiments to discover how to optimize and personalize technology, helping people learn new concepts and change habitual behavior.”

In the future, Williams hopes to conduct randomized A/B experiments with practical applications in health and education.

Dr. Florian Shkurti will be an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at UTM coming from McGill University. Shkurti was drawn to U of T due to its “longstanding tradition of excellence” in areas like robotics, machine learning, computer vision, and various engineering subfields.

One of Shkurti’s research projects works on robot control systems that enable robots to work alongside scientists to explore underwater environments.

“In the future, I am planning to dedicate my research efforts to creating algorithms that learn useful abstractions and representations from large sources of unsupervised visual data,” said Shkurti.

Dr. Jessica Burgner-Kahrs from Leibniz Universität Hannover in Germany will join the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at UTM as an Associate Professor.

According to Burgner-Kahrs, her research interests are in robotics, particularly in small-scale continuum robotics and human-robot interactions. She will be joining the faculty in Spring 2019.

Through its appointment of research-focused faculty, the university hopes to expand its research frontiers in computer science beyond traditional areas.

Become the master of CSC108

Introductory computer programming course experiments with self-paced mastery learning

Become the master of CSC108

This winter semester marks the start of the self-paced, mastery-based version of CSC108: Introduction to Computer Programming. Funded by the Provost’s Learning and Education Advancement Fund, this pilot will be testing whether mastery learning is an effective way to teach computer programming.

Paul Gries, an Associate Professor in U of T’s Department of Computer Science, has known “forever” that he wanted a self-paced version of CSC108, but he did not know how to implement it effectively. Mastery-based learning appears to be a viable answer.

Mastery learning requires students to demonstrate that they have mastered one concept before moving on to another. This differs from traditional styles of teaching, where students’ knowledge may be tested only once or twice over the course of the semester.

The course is broken down into seven units, called ‘quests.’ Students work through these quests by watching lectures online at home, and then go to class to work through exercises related to the content of the quests.

Before moving on to the next quest, students must demonstrate their mastery of the material by taking a quiz. If they achieve the threshold grade on the quiz, which ranges from 70 to 80 per cent, they are permitted to move on to the next set.

If they do not pass the mastery quiz, all hope is not lost. Students have the chance to practice more exercises or get one-on-one attention from Gries or the teaching assistants during class time.

To facilitate peer-learning, students who are struggling with the same material are placed together.

Students can move through the quests as quickly or as slowly as they want — something that is unheard of in university courses. By this account, Gries said that it is possible to be finished with the course material by halfway through the semester.

CSC108 has had a history of students dropping out or failing, only to retake the course again later. Gries thinks that this happens because students do not realize they are struggling with the material until the midterm, at which point it is usually too late. “There’s no mechanism or structure for them to effectively catch up,” said Gries.

It is especially hard to identify students that are struggling in a class with such large enrolment numbers. Offered in the fall, winter, and summer semesters, CSC108 is one of the largest classes on the St. George campus, with over 2,000 students enrolled per term.

When courses are both mastery-based and self-paced, students can figure out if they are struggling much more quickly — and they’re given an opportunity to catch up.

Michael Spyker, a student currently in the mastery section, believes that this new teaching style eliminates the “downwards spiral” some of us may be familiar with in traditional classrooms. “The mastery based section… provides a much more organic teaching environment,” said Spyker.

While mastery learning at U of T is a relatively new endeavour, CSC108 is no stranger to innovative learning — there are already two other non-traditional sections offered: one solely online, and the other, an inverted version.

The main difference between the inverted version and the mastery version is that the latter is self-paced.

“There’s all sorts of other research supporting that the inverted classroom is better than the traditional classroom, because students are doing active learning — they’re engaged in the material,” said Gries, adding that he believes this constant, short-term engagement of the material leads to better learning.

Second-year student Spencer Ki, who took CSC108 last fall, agrees that the inverted course is effective. “I feel that the inclusive and ‘hands-on’ approach taken in lectures really helped me absorb what was being taught, as opposed to simply memorising it.”

However, if he had the chance, Ki said he would have taken the mastery version. “I definitely see the mastery-based course as the next step in the evolution of university classes.”

Still, the mastery version might not be for everyone. “We expect that for some people the inverted classroom might be better” said Gries.

Ki had similar thoughts about the mastery version: “the temptation to procrastinate will probably be much higher.”

Gries’ enthusiasm for re-inventing education goes beyond just CSC108. He hopes that if this pilot proves to be successful, mastery-based learning could be implemented in introductory courses across U of T.

Gries does not see it stopping at universities: “There’s a lot of high schools that don’t offer [computer programming]. We’d like to find a way to offer that. So, maybe a couple of years from now we’ll have [a] mastery-based high school curriculum.”

Gries suggested that computer science students could travel to high schools to facilitate teachers in both learning and teaching the material.