Ask A Prof!

“Ask A Prof!” is a new, occasional series for the On Teaching and Learning @ Georgia Tech blog.  In this inaugural post, Provost Teaching and Learning Fellow, Dr. Polo Chau, answers the question:

What experiences as a student made you realize your passion for teaching? How do you see this reflected in your experience at GT?

It is my cumulative experiences as a student that make me realize that I want to teach. I still remember the time when I was a high school student. I would often pay more attention to teachers who were “nice” to the class, as in being approachable (smile more!), often showing many examples when teaching advanced materials, and happy to take questions from students. Those teachers might still be “tough” in that their grading could be strict. But somehow, I would still enjoy learning the topics. Time seemed to go by more quickly during those classes, and I felt I learned more easily.

When I entered college, I had taken many courses by then, seen many instructors (many were experts in their fields!) and many teaching styles. I started to realize how important of a role a teacher can play in helping students learn. I recognized that it’s not so much the materials (facts, algorithms, etc.) that have the biggest impact on the students, but rather how such materials are taught — by the teacher, for the students. For the same content, it could be taught in a “boring” way, giving no strong motivations for why students may want to learn about it, or how they can apply it. Or, it could be taught in a more exciting way that interests students and makes them want to learn and try it right away.

Now as a professor at Georgia Tech, I know how I teach matters a lot. I believe the very first step in teaching is to evoke genuine interest from students. To do that, I try and relate what I am about to teach to my personal experience, often explaining the “back story” of why I choose that topic. When I first started doing that, I worried that I would bore my students (too much talking about me!), but then I quickly recognized that sharing my experiences was a powerful way to better connect with students. One of the best things that happen to me as an instructor (and probably all instructors!) is when I receive Thank-a-Teacher notes from students who would tell me how much of an impact I have made on them.

I teach Data and Visual Analytics (CSE6242/CX4242) every semester, a graduate-level, introductory data science course. It has grown from 35 students in 2013, to 260 students in Fall 2019. As my class continued to grow in size, I started to miss the closer in-class interaction with students. A few semesters ago, I launched an experiment: after each class, I invited 6-7 student volunteers to coffee for an informal group chat — they could ask me anything they want (no need to be class-related). It has been a great hit! Students love it. So do I. The discussions could go in any direction, from “should I learn Python or R?” or “should I do a Ph.D.?” to “why are you called Polo?” The casual setting lets me get to know my students, to better understand their education and career needs, to get inspiration for improving my class, and to offer advice on topics that are important to my students (e.g., whether to pursue grad school) but otherwise would not be discussed in class.

Polo Chau

Associate Director, MS in Analytics
Associate Professor, School of Computational Science & Engineering
Machine Learning Area Leader, College of Computing
Georgia Tech

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