Computer Science Grad Student Rips Up Syllabus, Redesigns Class, Wins Award

Special from The Record

Jae Woo Lee knows what it is like to feel confused in class. He spoke almost no English when he immigrated to Flushing, Queens from Korea at age 18. At Bayside High School, “I could see what was on the board in math and science classes,” recalls Lee, who is now working toward a Ph.D. in computer science at Columbia. “But for three months I couldn’t really understand what people were saying.”

Adam Piore
Image credit: Barbara Alper
June 16, 2011

Jae Woo Lee won a teaching award after redesigning a computer science course.

His academic struggles, and others Lee encountered as a Columbia College physics major, stayed with him. Three years ago, when he began teaching a notoriously difficult undergraduate computer science course, the first thing he did was redesign the class to help students master crucial fundamentals.

“When I was in college, I was not a very good student,” Lee recalls. “It’s not because I wasn’t smart. Some of the professors just didn’t put enough effort into designing their courses and preparing their lectures.”

Last month, Lee’s innovations brought him University-wide recognition when he won a Presidential Teaching Award. Lee’s citation called attention to “remarkable praise” from his students, who recognized “a unique, exciting educator who has exercised a decisive influence over their professional development.”

Lee began teaching in 2008 when the computer science department had to find an instructor on short notice to lead Advanced Programming 3157. He quickly decided his students, mostly Columbia sophomores and juniors, could use more focused guidance.

He tore up the syllabus and winnowed down the number of topics, then used the extra time to help students master fundamental skills they would need to survive future systems-oriented computer science courses.

He also created a social network to encourage online collaboration. Then he devised 10 programming assignments that built upon one another, culminating in a tangible, real-world application: a fully functional web server. At the end of the semester, when students typed in a URL and watched a web page generated by their own server appear in their browsers, many of them emitted “screams that woke up the neighbors,” Lee recalls.

The server assignments “were a big hit and the students loved it,” agrees John R. Kender, a professor of computer science who prepared Lee’s dossier for the award on behalf of the department. Lee’s overall vision for the advanced programming course was an even bigger hit with the computer science department.

Not only did Lee’s professors embrace it for their own classes, they coauthored an article on his course structure, which Lee presented at a national computer science teaching conference.

In “a lot of educational enterprises, you basically earn your grade as a student by working by yourself,” says Kender. Lee, on the other hand, “has this idea that as long as people didn’t cheat outright, the more communication they could have to understand the material, the better for everyone,” Kender says.

The inspiration for this approach was Lee’s own experience as a physics undergraduate, when he struggled so much with the coursework that he took a year off between his sophomore and junior years. He returned to Columbia more mature and confident, he says, and consistently made the dean’s list.

But he felt he would have benefited greatly from more explicit direction and guidance. As a young student, “you just don’t know what to do,” he noted.

“When I create assignments I do them myself first, and I also structure them so there is only one way to do it correctly. If you get off track, you know it immediately,” he says. “Many of my assignments were five or six pages long single-spaced. The point is that the assignment describes everything the student needs to complete it.”