Monday, March 29, 2021 – by Aaron Aupperlee
To adjust to teaching virtually during the pandemic, David Woodruff let his students set the pace. That meant sticking around on Zoom for an extra 20 minutes at the end of lectures. It meant longer office hours — two hours instead of one. And it meant cutting one lecture from his courses to slow the pace.
“On almost every slide, I try to ask a question. I want the student to teach the material themselves,” Woodruff said. “I went at the pace students were most comfortable with on Zoom. Dropping one lecture was worth it if they understood the other lectures better.”
Woodruff, an associate professor in the Computer Science Department who joined Carnegie Mellon University in 2017, was honored for that dedication with this year’s Herbert Simon Award for Teaching Excellence in Computer Science. The award, presented annually by the School of Computer Science, honors faculty members for emulating Simon’s legacy of dedication and excellence in the classroom.
Undergraduate students nominate professors for the award, and they praised Woodruff for working with them individually and guiding them to an understanding of the material.
“As someone who absolutely despised linear algebra going into the course, it’s kind of a miracle that his teaching style made me appreciate its power and elegance and made me want to do research in theory,” one student wrote in their nomination.
During this past year, Woodruff taught an undergraduate algorithms course and the graduate-level Algorithms for Big Data. He thanked his staff of teaching assistants, some in different time zones, for making the courses run smoothly.
Woodruff said he is looking forward to interacting with students in person when they return to campus. Watching them learn is the most gratifying part of being a professor, he said.
“I like it when they have those ‘ah ha’ moments or connect something to a previous lecture and they see how beautiful this work is,” Woodruff said.
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