Matthew Boutell PhD '05
Interview from 2011 Multicast Newsletter
You began your career as a high school teacher, changed gears to become a PhD and now teach at Rose-Hulman. Your focus has always been on being an educator. What drove your passion for teaching? How was teaching high school preparation for your current position?
MB: I started my teaching career helping my friends with math in high school, and served as a Calculus tutor as an undergrad at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. I majored in math, but took a few CS courses too, and programmed quite a bit to generate results for my math thesis. I really liked being able to explain concepts to my peers in a different way that they had been taught, so I decided to try teaching as a career. I taught high school math for six years in Norton, Massachusetts and loved it. But two things happened that changed the focus of my teaching. First, I got the chance to teach programming at my high school, which was fun because I got to use my background in computing. I taught myself C++ to prepare myself to work as a consultant at a software company one summer, and got the opportunity to redesign my school’s APCS course when the language on the exam changed from Pascal to C++. This all kept my love for computer science strong. Second, teaching C++ at the high school led to an opportunity to teach as an adjunct professor at Stonehill College for 1.5 years. I appreciated both the students and looked forward to having time outside of the classroom to stay current in a rapidly changing field. There’s no better way to stay excited about teaching than to keep learning. Bottom line: I wanted to teach CS to undergrads, so headed back to school. When I came to URCS, I had already spent over 4300 hours in the classroom, which gave me confidence serving as a TA, presenting results at conferences, and teaching my first classes at Rose-Hulman. While I enjoyed my research with Chris Brown and with my colleagues at Kodak, my desire to teach gave me additional focus as a grad student.
You have noted that you are a dynamic presenter in the classroom with lots of enthusiasm. In what way? How is your teaching style different? Why is it effective?
MB: Teaching is my passion. I really love to learn, and every time I teach, I get to learn more. It’s easy to be excited when you are learning new things! Enthusiasm is contagious. My students have always been great – very willing to work hard on tough problems – just like URCS students. This all fills the classroom with energy.
What is your teaching load like? How much time do you have for research? What is your current research work like?
MB: At Rose-Hulman, we have three 10-week quarters each year. In my department, the teaching load is 12 contact hours, which translates into 2-3 courses, depending if any have labs. We have an open-door policy too – students drop in my office often. I usually have 1-2 preps, including fundamentals of software development, data structures, cryptography (following CB’s lead), and image recognition. I volunteered to teach three preps once, which included teaching a senior level mechatronics course for Mechanical Engineers for the first time. But I’m glad that’s not the norm!
Schools like Rose have different expectations for research, due to the large amount of time required in the classroom. I need to stay current, but don’t need to find funding. I currently don’t do much in the way of classical research. I have co-authored some vision papers with undergraduates, and have published some work on computer science education. I also helped create and lead a new multidisciplinary robotics minor. I don’t have any grad students working for me, or much time during the year. But I try to stay current during the summer or through mentoring students on senior theses, projects, and independent studies.
Tell me more about SPLICE. This fascinates me :). How long have you been using this method? What assessments are done to measure its effectiveness? How do the students react to this? Do they actually come to class prepared? Are the video homework/quizzes graded? Who is featured on the video instruction? With the basics covering in the out-of-class video, what does that enable you to do during classroom time? How was this idea developed? Have other schools adopted it? Can the students do it on their smart phones?
MB: This past year, a colleague and I worked on a project we dubbed SPLICE: Self-Paced Learning in an Inverted Classroom Environment. Many students comment that they “get” the concepts of programming, but just have a hard time writing programs! In an ideal world, an instructor could focus classroom time on helping students where they get stuck the most: programming. So we created videos for a C programming unit that we use for the last third of CS1. In one type of video, we record our voices over a slideshow to present concepts. In the second type of video, we pose a problem and then explain the problem solving process while we write code in Eclipse. Teaching the process, not just the final product, of programming is important because programming is very dynamic and non-linear. Students watch the videos each day to prepare for class and stay engaged by solving and submitting on-paper active learning problems and doing follow-along coding exercises as they watch. They come to class primed to put what they’ve learned into practice, and spend most of each class period solving problems either alone or in pairs. Students get expert coaching and receive individual attention. Students focus on confronting their misconceptions because we can immediately help with tool problems and obscure error messages. We have been collecting survey data and data on grades and video downloads to measure students’ perceptions and performance. From what we can tell so far, students really like getting to ask questions while they program and especially like the flexibility of watching the videos at their own pace, re-playing key sections as needed and either watching or skipping optional videos we created. Creating videos takes lots of time; we estimate that for each 15 minutes of video, it took us around 3 hours, from creating good clean visuals to editing the refining the recording. But we’ve used them in 7 sections of the course so far, and have posted them on YouTube so that others can use them.
You had a program to teach AP CS teachers during the summer. Was this a one-time event, or does it happen regularly? What kind of background do these teachers typically have? Would you recommend our CSC majors get certified to teach high school if they could?
MB: This was a one-time event. Computer science programs are being cut at many schools because of the focus many states have adopted on testing core competencies. We need both a change of policy to elevate the study of CS to the core and knowledgeable teachers to teach those courses: the Computer Science Teachers Association is working on policies, and CSC majors can help be the teachers!
Are you familiar with the Center for Workshop Education and the Workshop Model that is used at UR in many of the science classes and CSC? Peer-led Team learning?
MB: These models look very promising. We also do much with peer-led team-learning and make heavy use of upper-class students in class, but haven’t used them to lead workshops.
What is your non-academic life like? Busy dad with kids going in many directions, I imagine. I see you coach soccer. Do all the kids play soccer? What are the age ranges of your kids?
MB: My life is very busy outside of work. Many of my fellow grad students probably thought I was crazy as our family grew from one to four children during my time in the department. My wife Leah was and is amazing as a mom: there’s no way I could do any of this without her! We now have three boys and two girls, ranging from 3 to 12 years old – there is never a dull moment in our house. The oldest four love to play soccer in the Spring and Fall, and I’ve gotten to coach or help each season since 2007. We have also hosted a church in our home the last two years. We have doubled in size, because others also like what home churches offer: close relationships, shared leadership and discussions, and families worshipping together. And just to keep things exciting, we’ll be travelling to Zambia this next year so I can teach at Copperbelt University in Kitwe as a Fulbright scholar. I hope to learn more about how teaching is done in other cultures, and to teach courses and advise student projects. I especially look forward to teaching a course on Android app development, as everyone uses in this rapidly-developing nation already uses cell phones. Preparing a family of seven for our trek is consuming this summer. Any student who thinks that life slows down after graduation might want to reconsider. I think it’s possible in theory, but I certainly haven’t found it to be the case in practice!