By Kimberley Clementi
Computer Science and Engineering Associate Teaching Professor Leo Porter has received the prestigious Distinguished Teaching Award from the UC San Diego Academic Senate. Selected for his innovative methodology and commitment to excellence in teaching, Porter is one of just six members of the university’s Academic Senate to receive this university-wide award.
“Professor Porter’s dedication to the student-centered mission of UC San Diego is unwavering. And his work on getting peer instruction more adoption in the classroom, both at UC San Diego and nationally, has been remarkably impactful,” said CSE Department Chair Sorin Lerner. “We are incredibly lucky to have Professor Porter in our department. He inspires all of us to fully embrace our mission of educating the thought leaders of tomorrow.”
Porter, who earned all three of his degrees in Computer Science from UC San Diego, joined the CSE department as an assistant teaching professor in 2014. Now in his sixth year here, Porter teaches graduate courses in computer architecture and computing education as well as undergraduate introductory programming, data structures, computer organization, and computer architecture. (He also recently completed his first Ironman Triathlon, below.)
Since 2017, Porter has served UC San Diego as director of the Computer Science and Engineering Master’s Program. He is also board secretary for the ACM SIG on Computer Science Education and director of UC San Diego COSMOS, a summer program designed to attract a diverse and talented group of high school students to STEM.
Porter’s current leadership roles are the inexorable evolution of a career that began as a United States Navy officer who once navigated an $800 million destroyer. For Porter, leadership is inextricably linked to hard work and engaged, critical thinking – topics that were top of mind as he reflected on his teaching aspirations at UC San Diego.
Why is teaching an important, integral part of your job?
One of the reasons I became a professor was to mentor hard-working students who are motivated to improve themselves and society. Our lessons will be the foundation for this next generation of software engineers and leaders, whose work will impact the quality and value of tomorrow's technologies.
What do you enjoy about teaching?
I enjoy the opportunity to interact with students, whether it be in conversations with the class as a whole or talking with them directly in office hours. It is fun to learn how students think about the ideas of the course and then adapt my course for future quarters to help improve their understanding. Of course, I enjoy helping students achieve that "aha" moment when they come to understand a tricky concept.
What teaching approach helps you and your students achieve those “aha” moments, as you call them?
Every class I teach, with the except of my smaller graduate-level courses, is taught using Peer Instruction. Peer Instruction is an interactive pedagogical approach where students prepare for lecture by reading relevant material, then attend lecture prepared to discuss with peers and the instructor. This technique converts traditional lecture periods into a series of small mini-lectures and class-wide discussions interleaved with multiple choice questions students answer using an electronic response system, like clickers.
Can you offer a classroom example demonstrating how Peer Instruction differs from traditional instruction?
In my graduate computer architecture course, a traditional lecture class would discuss two competing ideas about how to best improve processor performance: one leverages compilers to find parallelism among instructions and the other uses hardware in the processor itself to find the parallelism. In my Peer Instruction class, I use a similar setup, but then I ask students to select with their clickers which approach they think is better.
The group discussion tends to be quite vibrant with students arguing each position. As part of the class-wide discussion, I get to reveal that the answers "why" for each approach are all reasonable, and that this was such a complex problem, industry didn't know the answer either.
How have students at UC San Diego responded to Peer Instruction?
Peer Instruction shifts student engagement from passive to interactive, and it allows students an opportunity to engage in discussions in the language of the discipline. Students at UC San Diego generally value this approach. From our surveys, an overwhelming majority of students – as many as 80 to 95% – would recommend more instructors use Peer Instruction in their classes. We’ve also seen improved outcomes for struggling students and those from underrepresented groups.
Porter previously won the UC San Diego Warren College Teaching Award in 2018 and the CSE department’s Teacher of the Year in 2016.