Interview with New Faculty: Prof. Laura Burdick
by Do June Min (PhD student, Michigan AI)
“We care about getting more women and underrepresented people involved in computer science. So we try many things, but as engineers, we are actively taking lessons from what we’ve learned in this class and applying them to other places.”
Prof. Laura Burdick
Prof. Laura Burdick is a lecturer in the Computer Science and Engineering division at the University of Michigan. Previously, she was a PhD student at the Language and Information Technologies (LIT) Lab at Univ. of Michigan, advised by Prof. Rada Mihalcea, Director of the AI Laboratory at Univ. of Michigan. Prof. Burdick joined the school as a teaching faculty in 2021 after graduation. She now teaches in the CSE Department at Univ. of Michigan EECS, both freshmen programming courses and courses closer to her research interests in natural language processing (NLP). She also spends time designing courses that are suited for students with limited prior exposure to CS. In this interview, she talks about her journey as a graduate student, researcher, and then as a teacher. The interviewer edited the contents for coherence and readability.
DJ: Laura, nice to see you again. It’s been a while since we last met while we’re both students. Now you’re here again, but in a different role. For the readers who may not know you, can you give a brief introduction of yourself?
Laura: Sure, I am currently a lecturer in Computer Science and Engineering. I started in January, so this is my second semester as a lecturer. Before that, I did my PhD here at Univ. of Michigan advised by Prof. Rada Mihalcea studying NLP. Before that, I did my bachelor’s degree in computer science at Grove City College, which is a small, Christian liberal arts college in Pennsylvania.
DJ: I see, thank you. So currently, your focus lies more heavily on teaching. I remember that while still a graduate student you were passionate about teaching to undergraduates and even to those outside the reach of university programs. For students who are interested/considering teaching, can you share your experience? Specifically, what was your experience with university education like, and why did you choose this path?
Laura: During both semesters that I have been here, I’ve taught ENGR 101, a freshmen programming class that most freshmen engineering students take. I am a part of the teaching faculty. If people are unfamiliar with that career track, there’s generally two faculty career tracks at the University of Michigan: the tenure track faculty and the teaching faculty. For graduate students, your PhD advisor is most likely a tenure track faculty, and they research, teach, and do service to the department and the college. On the other hand, teaching faculty’s primary job responsibility is to teach. Teaching faculty may do a little bit of research, but they are not required to. They typically don’t have PhD students and run research labs like the tenure track faculty. The reason I chose the teaching track was that I really enjoy teaching. I enjoyed teaching as a graduate student, and I enjoy it now, and that was the direction I wanted to go.
DJ: Why particularly at Univ. of Michigan?
Laura: I really enjoyed being at Univ. of Michigan for my graduate work. I already knew a lot of people in the department, So it wasn’t as much of an unknown as going to a new place would have been. Also, I wanted to be in this area for my family. And since I liked the Univ. of Michigan, this seemed like a good fit. I’ve been happy here so far.
DJ: Yeah, you’re not new to Ann Arbor, and it is a pretty amazing place, school-wise and people-wise. You mentioned that your primary mission here is teaching. Can you tell us more about what you are working on? In your case it will be the classes that you’re teaching or other initiatives or projects that you might be involved in as faculty.
Laura: I’ve been involved in teaching and designing several courses. My biggest class has been ENGR 101, a freshman programming class that all freshman engineering students are, for the most part, required to take. We teach MATLAB in the first half of the class, and C++ in the second half, and it’s a huge class! We have over 700 students this semester. With that many students, the class runs like a machine. I’ve been teaching this course for the past two semesters.
Another course that I will be teaching soon is EECS 492, “Intro to Artificial Intelligence.” It will be my first time teaching that class, and I’m excited to teach that class because the material is related to my research and very interesting. It is a broad course, covering many different areas in AI, and I’m looking forward to learning more about areas that I don’t normally work in.
I’ve also been very involved in a class called “Discover Computer Science (CS),” a freshman level class open to all students but particularly designed for women who have little to no programming experience. One important objective of this course is to help students experience computer science firsthand, by exploring different areas of computer science to see if CS could be a good match for them. I’m not currently teaching this class myself, but my involvement has been to help run the class, develop the class curriculum, and evaluate how the class is working. This course will be running again this winter. I’m excited to keep working on that class.
DJ: I see. So for Discover CS, and for other courses with a specific goal in mind such as, improved engagement from underrepresented groups, it feels like you are doing more than standard teaching work.
Laura: Yeah, we care about getting more women and underrepresented people involved in computer science. So we try many things, but as engineers, we are actively taking lessons from what we’ve learned in this class and applying them to other places. Moreover, for all classes, there’s an element of scaling up a class and making it better and better each semester, so I think teaching a class is both teaching and curriculum development, which is a lot of fun. It’s interesting to think about how you can best teach computer science so that students are able to learn effectively. Teaching gives you a lot of freedom to try new things in your classroom, and to keep what works and get rid of what doesn’t.
DJ: How easy was the transition from teaching as a graduate student to teaching your job?
Laura: I was a graduate student instructor (GSI) at the very beginning of graduate school for EECS 281, which is a big class with hundreds of students. So I had some experience in a big class, but I was just a GSI so I taught discussion sections, but I didn’t lecture.
Then I co-taught an NLP class with Rada, my advisor. That gave me more experience lecturing and helping to run a bigger class. I think we had more than 100 students enrolled in that. Then, I was the primary instructor for Discover CS.
My first semester as a lecturer, I taught a class of about 500 students with another lecturer, and it was a bit of a jump! It was really nice to teach this class with someone else for the first time, because I was able to learn a lot from that person.
The other instructor, Laura Alford, was very experienced and has been teaching this class for a really long time, and I learned a lot about how to scale up a class to 700 students, which is a challenge. She showed me how to lead a staff of GSIs and IAs well, and how to organize the class in order to provide the best experience for students.
DJ: Do you have any career advice to students who are interested in a similar career path as you? What can one do as a graduate student?
Laura: If you’re interested in academia, there’s a spectrum of places where you can teach. Typically an academic job is going to have a teaching component, sometimes a research component, and a service component, which is serving on committees and doing service to the department and the college. You have to think about how much teaching versus how much research you want to do. In my job, I do all teaching and I’m not required to do any research, so if I did any research, it would be optional. There are other jobs, for example, a research scientist at the Univ. of Michigan, that are all research and no teaching. And then there are jobs that are kind of in the middle, like the tenure track job at the Univ. of Michigan is half teaching and half research. You can find all these different combinations at different institutions. There are institutions like the Univ. of Michigan, or there are liberal arts institutions where you typically do around 80% teaching, 20% research, depending on the liberal arts institution. In short, if you are interested in teaching and research, there are many types of different institutions that have different balances of teaching and research.
If you decide that you do want to teach, try to get as much teaching experience as you can as a graduate student because that’s going to prepare you well for those job applications and interviews and that position. If you can be a primary instructor for a class, that experience is really going to help you as you look for a teaching job. Talk to your advisor about opportunities to teach, opportunities to GSI, and opportunities to lecture classes. Maybe ask for opportunities to co-lecture the class that your advisor is teaching.
If you’re interested in teaching and are a Univ. of Michigan graduate student, the Engineering Teaching Consultants (ETC) program is an amazing program. As an ECT, you get the chance to help other GSIs and IAs improve their teaching, and you are also in a community of peers that care about teaching, so you end up learning a lot about pedagogy. You give and receive feedback on teaching, which is really valuable because you see a lot of different teaching styles and a lot of things that work well and things that don’t work well. Plus, it’s a paid program, so I highly recommend it.
DJ: Since we’re running out of time unfortunately, let’s wrap-up with a final question. Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
Laura: That’s a good question. While being a teaching faculty here, I am learning so much every semester about teaching. And that’s my goal, I want to continue learning. I want to continue being a better teacher. I want to continue supporting my students better. I want to continue making my classes good places to learn, where people feel welcome and able to learn well.
On a personal note, I love to read, particularly novels, and I’m looking forward to reading many good books over the next few years. I’m currently re-reading Dune, in preparation for seeing the movie soon, which I’ve heard excellent things about.
More details about Prof. Laura Burdick’s work:
About the author:
Do June Min is currently a PhD student in the LIT Lab – CSE, EECS Univ. of Michigan.