On Sept. 21, 2023, UC Irvine held its 31st Annual Celebration of Teaching, recognizing excellence in undergraduate teaching. Three faculty members from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) were among those honored, including Shannon Alfaro, who was named Lecturer of the Year. In addition, Anne Marie Piper was named a Digital Accessibility Innovator — an honor introduced last year — and Constance Steinkuehler was recognized as a Dean’s Honoree for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
“This is our third Lecturer of the Year award in the past seven years,” says Alfaro, noting that Ray Klefstad and Alex Thornton won in 2017 and 2019, respectively. (Also, Matthew Bietz earned an honorable mention this year.) “I think the high propensity of winners is a testament to the high-quality instruction that’s taking place in the School of ICS.”
Lecturer of the Year
Alfaro, a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, stresses that she and her colleagues are constantly striving to find ways to support ICS students. “We focus on advancing our pedagogical skills using the most effective techniques to ensure students not only know the material but are also prepared for success.”
For example, many computer science majors start with ICS 31, the first of three lower-division courses in UCI’s “Introduction to Programming” sequence. “My goal in teaching 31 is to make sure the students are prepared to succeed not just in 31 but throughout the series,” says Alfaro. “So I track our fall quarter majors.” Working with other instructors in the series, she identifies where students are struggling and makes adjustments as needed in ICS 31 to ensure she’s providing a solid foundation to meet the rigor of future courses.
“Our textbook is now interactive, and we’ve started implementing projects and doing formative assessments, which gives students a sense for how they should be assimilating the material,” she says, noting the success of these adjustments. “Our retention number [for ICS 32 and 33] has been improving pretty much every year.”
Alfaro credits UCI’s Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation (DTEI) for its instructional support. “They need a big shoutout,” she says. “They provide a lot of training and opportunities for faculty to learn from each other and from current research in best practices.”
Alfaro also explains that she works from the “whole person” perspective. “Something that I do at the beginning of class, particularly if I have first-year students, is I share my own undergraduate experience,” she says. “I talk about my mental health crisis when I was a junior in college and the different resources I used as an undergrad.” She explains that this helps “normalize struggling” while emphasizing ways to seek support, as she shares the various resources available at UCI, such as the Basic Needs Center, the Counseling Center and the Division of Career Pathways.
Alfaro also teaches the ICS 90: New Student Seminar course to help students better navigate the college experience. “There’s this whole hidden curriculum,” she says. “So we cover everything from how to create a four-year plan and apply for internships to how to deal with setbacks.” In other words, everything Alfaro does is centered around one question: “What can we do to help students succeed?”
Digital Accessibility Innovator
Piper, an associate professor in the Department of Informatics who studies human-computer interaction and accessible computing, is also always looking to help students succeed, particularly students with disabilities. Receiving the Digital Accessibility Innovator award (along with Amalia Herrmann of the School of Humanities), Piper follows in the footsteps of her colleague Stacy Branham, who earned the title in 2022.
This past spring, Piper taught an informatics graduate seminar on accessible interaction. “We started the very first class with a discussion of what it would take to make class accessible to all [and] whether that’s even possible,” she says. They delved into a variety of issues, ranging from social acceptance of disability in higher education to requesting accommodations from advisors who often don’t understand accessibility.
“I spent multiple hours each week reviewing readings to make sure all PDFs, along with other course materials, were screen-reader accessible,” says Piper, noting that several students in the class used screen readers. “You’d be surprised how many archived publications that study accessibility are not actually accessible documents!”
The course, which was intentionally hybrid in format, also featured weekly guest speakers from the field of accessible computing. “Each class meeting with a virtual guest discussant meant that we needed to renegotiate access practices and think about how to support guests who are blind, Deaf or hard of hearing, or neurodivergent,” says Piper. “This allowed us to discuss digital accessibility in a way that didn’t put the students themselves and their own disabled identities in the spotlight.”
Everyone involved in the course learned how to better support accessibility, particularly in higher education. “Our conclusion was that, while we have taken many important steps forward, we have a long way to go toward realizing a vision where disabled students are able to move fluidly within and between physical and digital classroom spaces, research environments, and the myriad digital tools and materials required for succeeding at an academic institution,” says Piper. “There is much work left to be done.”
Marios Papaefthymiou, dean of the School of ICS, selected Informatics Professor Steinkuehler as the Dean’s Honoree for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. As co-director of the Games+Learning+Society (GLS) Center, Steinkuehler studies culture, cognition and learning in the context of multiplayer online videogames, and she teaches courses on games and society, visual design, and research methods.
“I take a mastery approach to learning, which means that I set the bar for quality work high but give students the opportunity to revise and resubmit work if they do not get the grade they hope for,” says Steinkuehler. “This approach takes the pressure off students to ‘get it right’ the first time, which levels the playing field — especially for first-gen students. The truth is that much of the learning happens during those revision opportunities.”
Since the first UCI Celebration of Teaching back in 1992, over 300 professors, lecturers, and TAs have been recognized by their colleagues and students for exemplary teaching. See past awardees on the DTEI website.
— Shani Murray