Charlie Van Loan, CS, James and Mary Tien Award
When the College of Engineering began changing its curriculum to better align with math, chemistry, physics and computing, Charlie Van Loan was called upon to redesign the introductory computer science course. The goal of the retooled course, as he put it, "is for students to develop a practical intuition about computer problem-solving and its role in science and engineering."
By all accounts—from students and faculty—Van Loan accomplished that goal, while also teaching a graduate course and writing a textbook. "The over-arching vision was achieved through new lectures, all delivered by Charlie in the fall 2007 outing, and through a complete and original revamping of the problem sets to emphasize interesting, challenging, and compelling problems arising in scientific and engineering contexts," wrote Computer Science Chair Eva Tardos, in her nomination letter. "His exceptional commitment to education and his innovative redesign of 100M [Introduction to Computing using MATLAB] are strongly deserving of recognition."
One of his assignments involved computing the center of population for the US and contrasting it with the Census Bureau's result which assumes a "flat Earth." The exercise gave students the opportunity to work with large online data sets and to explore the impact of model error.
As one of two possible required computing courses for engineering students, CS 1112 (as it is now called) , is not always a favorite of non-computer science majors. However, the students enjoy the intricacies of Van Loan's projects. "Assignments were challenging but interesting and extremely helpful in grasping the concepts taught," reads one student's course evaluation.
They also appreciate his lecture style. "Dr Van Loan is a gifted lecturer—one of the best I've had at Cornell. There was a clear learning progression in the course, and presentations were so clear I sometimes had the impression that each word had been carefully chosen in advance," reads another student evaluation.
Van Loan says he strives to "build intuition in the lectures and leave details to the textbook." He does that by bringing research ideas to the undergraduate classroom, a strategy he finds both challenging and rewarding. Once he gave a "playful" assignment in CS 1112 that illustrated a magical connection between chaos and order. Later in the school year he asked students in a senior-level numerical analysis to explain the connection. It turned out to have extremely deep connections to matrix computations, his field of interest. He went on to co-author a research paper with one of the undergraduates in the class.
"Overall, Charlie is one of our most dedicated teachers," wrote Tardos. "He is best at thinking through how to teach the material in an engaging way and he is always willing to teach on overload when there is need."