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Stuart Reges wins UW teaching award
More than a third of UW undergraduates will have an opportunity to take a class designed by Stuart Reges, winner of this year's University of Washington Distinguished Teaching Award. Some of them may be surprised to leave the course considering a career in computer science.
About eight years ago, UW CSE 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.
CSE 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.
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 is now used in more than 100 colleges and universities across the country.
Reges is 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 university-wide awards for English and poetry. He pursued graduate research at Stanford in artificial intelligence only to discover that his real love was teaching. Students who flock to his classes 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 talented and enthusiastic, and then I ask them: 'Why aren't you considering computer science?'" Many of the students in this category are women; award 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, wellscoped assignments, and fair grading," says Hélène Martin, a UW CSE alum who now teaches computer science at Seattle's Garfield High School, "but what sets him apart from other teachers is his ability to inspire students individually and develop their passions." Hélène is among many former students who credit Reges with their career choice.
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 and the University of Arizona. Reges works to create a community among the TAs, holding a weekly meeting where they cover course updates but also share food and 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, Reges also holds an optional honors section, a separate class where top students meet once a week for smallgroup discussions. 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. 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."