For Donald Chinn, teaching future computer scientists the ins and outs of programming and theories of computation is easy. Asking students to write essays and hosting class discussions on philosophy and logic? Sounds terrifying.
And that’s exactly why he did it. Chinn, UW Tacoma’s 2014 Distinguished Teaching Award recipient, broadened his teaching horizons over the last few years, adding a class in computer ethics and society to his C.V. and even teaching philosophy of science and argument to freshmen.
“Teaching something I’ve never taught before is kind of scary, but I wanted to try something new,” Chinn says. “I wanted to experience what it’s like to be a student learning this stuff, and I think I did OK.”
He’s done more than OK. A member of the Institute of Technology faculty since 2002, Chinn has earned a reputation among students and colleagues as a fair, caring and fun teacher who expects a lot from his students but works hard to help them understand difficult concepts.
“His humble character with humor has been a great vehicle to work with others easily and effectively,” one nomination for the award states.
After earning a bachelor of arts in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley in 1988, Chinn moved to Seattle to earn his master’s and Ph.D. in computer science and engineering from UW Seattle. He spent three years as a software design engineer on the Windows 2000 team at Microsoft, and then decided to follow his heart back to academia.
“I enjoyed teaching and thought I should pursue it,” he says.
Chinn joined the Institute as an assistant professor and was promoted to associate professor in 2008. When he joined the program, it only offered one degree in computer science and software. Now, he teaches computer science to students pursuing an array of Institute degrees, which has grown to include computer engineering, information technology and cybersecurity.
After UW Tacoma expanded to a four-year university in 2006, Chinn took on a new challenge: teaching lecture classes in the freshman core, a major departure from the hands-on technical and theoretical teaching he’d done in the Institute. More recently, he added computer ethics to his slate of classes. Leading classroom discussions and grading student essays opened his eyes to a new approach to teaching.
“It definitely required a rethink on my part about how I handled the classroom,” he says.
As a teacher, Chinn says, it’s important to be completely prepared, organized and interactive, and to have high expectations – but make sure students clearly understand them.
“I’m really trying to develop complete openness in my classroom, explaining my criteria, the purpose of the course and why it’s important to learn what I teach,” he says. “These days there’s more of a need for students to understand why they’re learning and how all these ideas connect.”
Chinn also makes a point of giving students weekly assignments so they receive frequent feedback on their work. He doesn’t go easy on the grades, either.
“Some students say my grading tactics are kind of rough,” he says. “But I think it’s better to give them feedback. “I’m willing to take the criticism that I’m a tough grader if it means they learn the material.”
Chinn works hard to individualize student learning by working closely with both graduate and undergraduate students and supervising their internships (many of his students become interns at Microsoft, his former employer). He strives to help students understand how the development of computer applications relates to the real world.
One student thanked him for teaching and supervising her internship in a note after she graduated: “Teaching is not an easy task,” she wrote. “But you do it well, care about your students and have a sense of humor that makes you fun to be around.”
John Burkhardt, Media Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org or 253-692-4536