UVA Engineering Professor Earns Prestigious International Teaching Award

Mark Sherriff, an associate professor in the University of Virginia’s Computer Science Engineering Department, has been named the recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s 2016 Computer Science and Engineering Undergraduate Teaching Award.

According to its award announcement, the IEEE Computer Society, an international technology organization, recognized Sherriff for “outstanding contributions to undergraduate computer science education through innovative teaching and commitment to increasing enrollment and diversity in computer science programs.”

Sherriff, who joined the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science in 2007, focuses his teaching on introductory computer science, computer game design, software engineering, and web and mobile app development. He leads the Game Design Research Group at UVA. In 2014, he earned the UVA All-University Teaching Award, and he won the Hartfield-Jefferson Scholars Teaching Prize in 2010. He was named Professor of the Year for UVA’s chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery in 2010 and 2012.

“The computer science field is becoming much more diverse, with new students of various backgrounds and age groups,” Sherriff said in his teaching portfolio. “People are turning to computer-related fields for opportunities to start their careers in a growing area, jump-start their current careers, or just out of curiosity. Some students will come in ready to learn, while others want to get in and out as fast as possible so they can move on with their careers. These different approaches, backgrounds, and motivations create an interesting environment in which to teach. I try to teach my classes to reach all of the students in my class, not just those who are there for reasons that are more in line with my thinking.”

Sherriff’s introductory programming course is one of the largest courses at UVA, with around 1,000 students enrolled per year. Sherriff engages the students through a model he calls “inform, experience, implement.” This means he first informs students by teaching them the history of a topic. Next, he gives students an activity during which they can experience how the problem or technology affects real life. Finally, he teaches students the computer science algorithms and techniques needed to solve the problem.

For example, students are sent on an encrypted scavenger hunt around UVA’s grounds to decode the day’s lesson about encryption methods. He also helped establish a course in which teams of students were assigned to assist non-profit organizations with Web and software development, providing the students with valuable customer-service and problem-solving experience.

“Professor Sherriff is a leader in the kind of hands-on, minds-on learning experiences we intend to provide for all of our students at UVA Engineering,” said School of Engineering Dean Craig Benson. “This award is well deserved.”

Sherriff has dedicated himself to continuous improvement in teaching. He podcasts his lessons primarily so that he can revisit the recordings and improve his teaching style.

“This is a powerful recognition of Professor Sherriff’s contributions,” said Professor Kevin Skadron, chair of the Computer Science Engineering Department. “He is truly a leader in terms of engaging students and ensuring they graduate from UVA with a deep understanding of the science of computing, along with the leadership skills they will need to succeed in their careers.”

According to an IEEE Computing Society release, the Computer Science & Engineering Undergraduate Teaching Award recognizes outstanding contributions to undergraduate education through both teaching and service. The award consists of a distinguished plaque, certificate and a $2,000 honorarium. The award will be presented at the IEEE Computer Society’s annual awards ceremony in Atlanta in June. 

“I believe that my classroom is an environment that students actually want to come to in order to learn and that they do learn while they are there,” Sherriff said. “I also believe that my classroom is an entertaining environment, because learning can absolutely be fun. I am ever grateful to the students and colleagues who have given me feedback on my teaching, and I continue to hope that I will improve as a professor as my career moves forward.”