Pitt will explore UI involvement in educational outreach activities
When Lenny Pitt, a professor of computer science, wants to illustrate for his students how a binary computer works, he calls upon a revered source: the Amazing Dr. Nim. A child’s game from the mid-1960s, the Amazing Dr. Nim is a plastic machine that uses mechanical levers and marbles to demonstrate mathematical concepts.
Students in the Discovery course Pitt is teaching this semester, “Programming for the Rest of Us,” likewise get to play with – and learn from – a program called Squeak, a media authoring tool based on Smalltalk-80 language. The software enables users to quickly create animations, computer games, and other interactive and graphically rich programs without the overhead and learning curve associated with typical programming languages. Squeak, a freeware program, also is used by elementary-school children, some as young as second grade.
And what does Pitt want his students to gain from these fun-and-games?
“I want them to have a blast, to feel like they understand how to model things using a computer, to know that they can do more with a computer than just run spreadsheets and that a computer can be used for creative expression as well as a tool for testing hypotheses,” Pitt said.
A 2004-05 Distinguished Teacher/Scholar, Pitt, who loves to share what he knows about discrete mathematics and computer science, said that discovering novel, interactive methods for doing that is what keeps him excited about teaching and research.
“I have so much fun doing this stuff that I want other people to have fun also,” Pitt said. “What makes me effective – when I’m effective – is that I really like the material and some of the beautiful arguments that arise. A lot of computer science and math is about puzzles. I love puzzles and my excitement works its way into my lectures.”
Pitt’s research focuses on formal mathematical models of how learning agents interact with their environments, precise definitions of learning and the types of concepts or behaviors that are provably learnable.
For the past several years Pitt has been engaged in educational outreach activities for elementary and secondary school teachers in Champaign, emphasizing the development of fun, experiential activities for teaching discrete mathematics and computer science concepts at the K-12 levels.
“If I can understand things in a simple way, that’s when I can best explain it,” Pitt said.
Pitt’s repertoire includes one activity that uses fruit and a number of unusual hats to introduce children to concepts about machine behavior and modeling computation, and another activity uses magic tricks to illustrate the binary number system.
Over the years, Pitt has found that the lessons that his undergraduate students enjoy most and find most memorable are those that involve the light-hearted activities he uses to teach K-12 students.
Pitt hopes that “sharing the fun” will encourage more students at all levels to study science and technology.
Pitt also has been a volunteer teacher at Countryside School and in the past has volunteered at the Champaign Alternative Resources in Education (CARE) school.
His work has earned him honors that include the NSF Research Initiation Award (1988), the C.W. Gear Outstanding Junior Faculty Award (1992) and the Everitt Award for Teaching Excellence (1999).
For his DTS project, Pitt is exploring UI faculty and undergraduate student involvement in K-12 educational outreach activities: who does it, their motivations and the rewards they reap from it as well as any impediments they may encounter.
By understanding the barriers that discourage faculty outreach with K-12, Pitt hopes to identify resources that, if available, would facilitate it, such as a centralized matching service between local teachers and interested faculty members and students, a database of success stories and “how-to” guides, or anything that might help streamline the process of getting faculty and students involved with the community.
A UI faculty member since 1986, Pitt earned an undergraduate degree in computer science and a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan and a doctorate in computer science from Yale University.
Kelter to focus on enhancing interaction in large lectures
Paul Kelter’s enthusiasm for teaching shows and has been honored by his being named one of two 2004-2005 Distinguished Teacher/Scholars on the Urbana campus.
Photo by Kwame Ross
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Paul Kelter, a professor of chemistry and director of general chemistry, is passionate about several things: chemistry, teaching, long-distance running, international folk dancing and layer cakes.
Kelter’s enthusiasm for teaching shows and has been honored by his being named one of two 2004-2005 Distinguished Teacher/Scholars on the Urbana campus.
Kelter said he is “stunned, grateful and feel(s) darn lucky” to be honored, especially because he is a relative newcomer to the Urbana campus, having joined the UI faculty in May 2003.
“There are people on campus who have been teaching the lights out for years who are at least equally honorable,” Kelter said. “I don’t know why I won it, but I plan on making good use of it. There are ideas and techniques about teaching that are worth sharing, and I plan on being part of this culture that we have well entrenched on this campus.”
Along with their award, Distinguished Teacher/Scholars propose activities that they will use to enhance teaching on campus. Toward that goal, Kelter is meeting with 22 faculty and professional staff members to share techniques and strategies for stimulating high teacher-student interaction in large lectures. The group also is examining assessment methods that can help teachers determine their students’ level of comprehension “in real time instead of waiting until it’s too late, instead of waiting until the exam,” Kelter explained. “Our goal is to know what students know and understand so we can teach better.”
Asking questions of the teacher and perhaps conveying confusion or a lack of comprehension can feel very risky to students, especially in large lectures, where “peer pressure is off the charts,” Kelter said, and he is enthusiastic about the I-Clicker program under development whereby students will be able to respond to questions using wireless remotes.
Enrollment in general chemistry increased nearly 20 percent this fall compared with last fall, and the increased demand prompted the addition of a second section to the department’s preparatory course. “And I’m delighted because I get to work with the kids on the core ideas of chemistry,” said Kelter, who is teaching the course this semester.
The contents of Kelter’s office in the Chemistry Annex – which include a Cabbage Patch doll wired to measure solutions’ conductivity, a pyramid of frosting cans, and an engraved oak toilet seat and lid given in gratitude for his organizing a conference – and his attire – a golf cap with the Walt Disney World logo and running shoes – indicate that Kelter is a guy who enjoys having fun, and that attitude is apparent in
“Anybody that teaches any subject that they love and can’t find a way to make it interesting and demonstrate why it’s meaningful to the students should get another job. Every new class is a group of people that can enjoy chemistry, and they will remember the day the teacher exploded balloons filled with hydrogen and oxygen,” Kelter said, referring to a demonstration he performed for his class earlier in the day.
Kelter is widely known for his contributions to undergraduate science education, particularly in multimedia technology, and he has led the design of education-training workshops for high school and college educators locally and nationally.
To provide a forum and clearinghouse for information on entry-level chemistry education, Kelter formed the International Center for First-Year Undergraduate Chemistry in October 2003. In addition to UI faculty, its members include faculty from Purdue and Clemson universities and a number of other U.S. universities as well as universities in Argentina, China, Mexico and Scotland. An international conference on first-year undergraduate chemistry education will be held on the Urbana campus in May 2005.
Kelter’s work has garnered more than 40 grants totaling approximately $6 million from agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. During his career, Kelter also has been recognized with numerous teaching excellence awards, including three from the University of Nebraska in 1999, and he was the recipient of the Nebraska Student Association’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year for 1997.
Kelter earned a bachelor of science from the City College of the City University of New York in 1976 and a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1980. He is the author or co-author of several chemistry textbooks and study guides as well as numerous articles on chemistry and instructional methods.
A history of teaching excellence
The Distinguished Teacher/Scholar program is one of several activities sponsored by the Teaching Advancement Board to strengthen teaching on campus and to underscore the importance of high-quality instruction. For the past four years, TAB has been working with various colleges on campus to expand their teaching academies and help teachers succeed in the classroom.
Although the Distinguished Teacher/Scholar appointment lasts just one year, honorees carry the designation with them throughout their UI careers.
- Philip Buriak, agricultural engineering
- O. Vernon Burton, history
- Paul F. Diehl, political science
- James A. Gentry, finance
- Steve Helle, journalism
- Paul Kelter, chemistry
- J. Bruce Litchfield, engineering
- Michael C. Loui, electrical and computer engineering
- Lenny Pitt, computer science
- Shelly J. Schmidt, food chemistry
- Thomas Schwandt, educational psychology
- Linda C. Smith, library and information science
- Joseph C. Squier, art and design
- Arlette Willis, curriculum and instruction