More than one-third of UW undergraduates will have an opportunity to take a class designed by Stuart Reges, winner of a Distinguished Teaching Award.
Some of them may be surprised to leave the course considering a career in computer science.
About eight years ago, the UW’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering decided to follow Stanford, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon and other universities in making coordination of the introductory programming course a specialty to be handled by an expert.
Department chair Hank Levy characterized the UW’s introductory programming class at that time as “a disaster.”
“We placed that disaster in Stuart’s hands,” Levy wrote.
The turnaround was dramatic. A chart of undergraduate enrollment in computer science at the UW shows a sharp inflection point when Reges was hired in 2004, and a steady increase ever since. In 2009, Reges became the first member of the UW’s College of Engineering promoted to the rank of principal lecturer.
“There were high numbers before,” says Reges, pointing to the dot-com peak in the late ’90s, “but we’re setting records.”
Last year more than 1,600 students took CSE 142, “Introduction to Computer Programming.” More than 500 women enrolled, which is also an all-time high.
A former student describes Reges’ lectures as “a mixture of clear concepts, useful examples, and interesting facts.” Evaluations from hundreds of students enrolled in an introductory programming course last fall were a perfect 5.0.
“Getting high student reviews for a small, advanced class is easy,” writes Richard Anderson, professor of computer science & engineering. “Doing so for an introductory class of this size, technical difficulty, and complexity is nearly unheard of.”
Among the reasons for Reges’ popularity is what he calls “nifty assignments” – coding assignments that illustrate a concept, but are also fun. One has students create a program where you can type in any name and it calculates all the words that can be formed using the same letters. Another programming assignment has users complete a standard personality questionnaire and then maps the results along four personality dimensions.
Reges has written a book on nifty assignments that’s now used in more than 100 colleges and universities across the country.
He’s a late convert to computer science who encourages others to consider all their options. As an undergraduate, Reges majored in math, but he also won universitywide awards for English and poetry. He pursued graduate research at Stanford in artificial intelligence only to discover that his real love was for teaching.
Students who flock to his class discover a passionate evangelist for his discipline.
“The reason that I want to teach 1,650 students a year is that I find the ones who are good. And then I ask them: ‘Why aren’t you considering computer science?’”
Many of the students in this category are women; nominators credit Reges for helping the department recruit and retain a record number of female students.
“Stuart is the master of captivating and organized lectures, well-scoped assignments, and fair grading,” said Hélène Martin, “but what sets him apart from other teachers is his ability to inspire students individually and develop their passions.”
She is among many former students who credit Reges with their career choice, in her case computer-science education.
Key to Reges’ success is what has been referred to as a “phalanx of undergraduate teaching assistants.” He used a similar strategy in previous positions at Stanford University and the University of Arizona; last year, almost 30 years of Stanford undergraduate TAs held a reunion.
In each case, Reges works to create a community among the TAs, holding a weekly meeting where they cover course updates, but students also share food and can discuss their different approaches to teaching the material. The TAs can decide how to run their sections and have input into the course as a whole.
Last year, the department had 98 applications for nine TA positions, and for the first time could not interview all the applicants.
On top of lecturing in huge lecture halls, Reges also holds an optional honors section, a separate class where top students meet once a week for small-group discussions.
“Over time, I’ve learned that you have to make time for your best students,” Reges said.
Sometimes that time takes him well beyond the standard workday. Reges notes that on a recent evening, he held an honors section from 7 to 9 p.m., then stayed later to talk with students.
“I was here until 11:45, and I hadn’t had dinner,” he says.
What makes it worthwhile, he says, is seeing what a difference an outstanding teacher can make.
“To be able to have this kind of impact on people’s lives is just incredible.”