UTM associate professor Dr. Andrew Petersen was recently named as one of Ontario’s most outstanding university teachers by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA). OCUFA selects recipients on the basis of their dedication to teaching and advancement in their field of study. The Medium sat down with Dr. Petersen to discuss his award-winning teaching.

Petersen, an associate professor in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences, has taught at UTM for the past twelve years. He says that it is “fabulous” to be chosen for the award.

Petersen was nominated for the honour by the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences. Faculty and students wrote letters of recommendation to include in the application.

“I work with a really fabulous group of instructors, so for them and the students to take the time to nominate me is really special. I know how busy they are [so] the fact that they took the time to do it makes me feel really good,” adds Petersen.

Petersen found out that he had won the prestigious award through a letter and email sent by the OCUFA. “I got a thin envelope from OCUFA. I peeked in and it said ‘Congratulations.’ I was in between meetings so I read it later,” he relates.

Petersen is the instructor for CSC108: Introduction to Computer Programming. He describes the introductory course as, “a course you need to pay attention to.” He says that “it’s a course where you have a bunch of people who have never heard of computer science coming to take it with people who have taken it for a year in high school already.”

Petersen, whose current research is focused on computing education, strives to constantly improve the learning environment for students. He elaborates on what he has learned through his research: “One of the things I think we don’t do well at the moment is students with prior experience have a significant advantage coming in. It can be really hard to enter a classroom and have people there that have already done this for a year in high school.”

Petersen also notes that “computer science has a diversity problem. There are hardly any women [and] few people of colour. In that course, one of the things we struggle with is allowing people to have a fair chance to succeed with people who have not had as much exposure to it.”

Petersen tries to create equal opportunities for students by “thinking about groundwork in the first few weeks of the course.” Petersen focuses on “exposure to coding and allowing students to practice coding themselves. This allows students to see that they’re producing things that other people are producing and [that] they are not behind.”

Petersen also notes that the active learning classrooms have been instrumental in allowing him to accomplish his teaching goals. He considers experiential learning to be important because while coding may look easy when observing a professor at the front of the room, coding itself is harder than it appears. Students have told Petersen that they have “spent an amount of time studying and it didn’t click” and when they do coding themselves, they can learn better.

Petersen emphasizes the importance of supporting first-year students that are considering majoring in the computer science program. “In the context of CSC 108, I would work with [first-year students] and help them try to figure out what it is they could do if they want to make the changes that I think they need to make to get through [the computer science program],” he says.

Effective studying methods are very important for students to keep their standing in the computer science program because of its growing popularity. Petersen notes that the program has changed to accommodate the growing interest. “Thirteen years ago, we had 120 students in one section. This year, we have four instructors teaching seven sections and over 1,000 students. As a result, if [a student] is struggling at the end of year one, they have to make the changes and choose whether they will continue or not.”

Petersen says that supporting students and allowing for engagement is important throughout their studies in the computer science program. He shares a story of one of his former students returning to thank him two years after graduating.

 “He came back, shook my hand, and said, ‘I got the job I wanted.’ [The student] explained what the job was, and explained why he wanted it. It meshed with what I knew about him when he was a student.”

Petersen continues, “[The student] said, ‘I got it and knew you were a part of it [because] this course was way more organized than any other course I’ve ever taken. [It was] structured in such a way that forced me to keep up with the material. I just wanted to thank you.’”

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