Q&A with Teaching Award Winner Briana Bettin

Briana Bettin with backpack duck and dinosaurs
Briana Bettin with backpack duck and dinosaurs
Briana Bettin, recipient of Michigan Tech’s 2022 Distinguished Teaching Award.
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Briana Bettin is the recipient of Michigan Technological University’s 2022 Distinguished Teaching Award in the Teaching Professor/Professor of Practice/Assistant Professor category.

Briana Bettin is an assistant professor of both computer science and cognitive and learning sciences. She received her master’s in human-computer interaction from Iowa State University and her bachelor’s and Ph.D. in computer science from Michigan Tech. Her research blends user experience methodologies with education research to better understand programming students and the impacts of the classroom environment.

"In Briana's short time here, she has quickly become one of the very best educators we have at Michigan Tech. She uses her research in computer science education to support her own classroom methodologies - and to great effect. She's having a transformative effect on her students, in part because she sees them not merely as students but as citizens looking to cultivate a sense of self and community in their various physical and digital worlds."Dennis Livesay, Dave House Dean of Computing for the College of Computing

Molly Cavaleri is the recipient of Michigan Tech’s 2022 Distinguished Teaching Award in the Associate Professor/Professor category.

Q: You’re an assistant professor in both computer science and cognitive and learning sciences. What do you do in your work for each of these disciplines?

BB: My background is in user experience design, so my appointment to both CS and CLS really highlights my skill set factoring in both the technological and human sides. I primarily teach our Introductory Programming course, CS1121, and this was recently added as a requirement for some of the majors within the CLS department. This might seem like a bit of a strange requirement, but it speaks to how important understanding computers has become. My work and my research interests center on that idea: empowering people to learn about and with, as well as to advocate and imagine, within our increasingly technological society.

Students across majors have a growing need to be able to communicate with developers in order to get jobs done, and to understand the tools that they may need to use in their workplace. There are so many opportunities for human factors and simulation-based research in CLS fields that would benefit from at least some passing knowledge of programming, so including these courses in student breadth makes sense in helping to prep future workforce skills. Not every student in CS1121 is a computing major, so I work hard to ensure the course provides everyone with a valuable experience. Of course, the class “Intro to Programming” is going to require programming, but I parallel the technical “write me code” requirements with several planning and describing activities — for example, asking students, “How do you know this will work?” and “What could be done differently?”

My goal is not just that students know how to code — you can find coding tutorials anywhere that give you raw “stuff.” I want to help them validate whether they understand what code does and whether they can communicate about code with others and justify their decisions while programming. I also ensure that students recognize, even if we aren’t building big systems for people just yet while we learn these foundations, that code is powerful and comes with responsibility, that there are social impacts to what they program and that computer scientists are often the least likely to recognize how impactful to society their job can be. These skills and this awareness are what job recruiters look for in the modern market. They are also valuable even for those who won’t go on to become programmers.

In the spring, I had a chance to teach my first graduate course, which was open to students in both CS and CLS (we recruited for humanities as well, but ultimately CS and CLS students made up the roster). This course really bridged the departments and my area of interest together, and I think the students enjoyed the unique course blend as well. The course was titled Reimagining Technofuturism, and it explored facets of human identity and societal systems in order to understand technology’s role, how technology impacts our human futures and how we might design differently in order to arrive at future technologies that better center human identities and futures. It’s very different from the usual computer science course, but I think that’s what made it so stellar. The students were absolute rockstars in exploring these topics and imagining new future technology ideas, and having a blend of students across both CS and CLS in conversation with each other created a fascinating learning environment that I don’t think we would have had if the course was siloed. I also want to take a moment to shout out the 3C Fellows cohort program through Duke University, as without their awesome program I would not have proposed this course and had this amazing experience!

Q: How would you describe your teaching style? 

BB: I care deeply, I’m very passionate and I have no qualms about acting like (for lack of a better descriptor) a ham sandwich. I don’t know how those things come together as a style, but they’ve always been quintessentially me, and it seems that students respond to them. Perhaps the right term here is authenticity — I bring my full self to class, and I want them to bring their full selves too. If the classroom climate feels off, I will stop class to have a conversation and ask what’s going on with them. You can’t learn if you’re overwhelmed — and being overwhelmed is human. Learning is a hard job, and we’re all people. While I have to set certain boundaries and be firm with students about expectations, I know that life happens, and I try to encourage my students to take care of themselves, and remind them that I care about their well-being and success.

I also use lots of examples and analogies to help explore the material. Computing ideas can seem really novel or complicated at first, and grounding them in the real world can help students have something to pin the concepts to while they’re learning them. We’ll do activities like making real-life rubber ducks appear from templates on a whiteboard to simulate the difference between classes and objects. I encourage students to share what they find interesting, and try to ground examples in those ideas as well to make sure the examples aren’t only relevant, but salient. I’ve had students stop by office hours with interests ranging from hockey players to pressed pennies, and we’ve made examples out of all of them to try to get the ideas across in relevant ways.

Briana with duck
Among Briana Bettin's many teaching talents: turning abstract coding concepts into real-life rubber ducks. 

I think that a lot of my teaching style also comes from my user experience mindset. I see education and learning as an experience, so I want to optimize that experience for my students. I’m always pondering what could be better based on their feedback and on observations. Would this discussion be better in a different format? Is this example still relevant and useful? How is the order of material impacting connections made and understanding? Do we need to modify the lecture approach based on the room’s equipment to ensure all students can see, hear and engage? These sorts of questions are constantly on my mind as I teach, and I think that authentic desire to adapt and create a positive learning experience for all feeds into everything I do as an instructor.

"Dr. Bettin is a true champion and practitioner of inclusive teaching pedagogy. From the design of her syllabi to her use of assessments that allow students to demonstrate multiple ways of knowing, it is clear that Briana is learner-centered and equity-focused in all she does."Kelly Steelman, chair of the Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences

Q: What instructional methods or philosophies do you use to be successful?

BB: Bringing the student’s self into the classroom has been a very central idea for me. Analogies and examples really help with bringing the outside in. I also bring in a lot of myself in how I lecture — and not just the most shiny, sunny parts, like my pun-derful sense of humor or immense corniness or memes either. I let students see me make mistakes; I thank them for identifying those mistakes and engaging with the lecture. I ask them why that was a mistake and create conversation because students need to see experts fail too. Failure is part of learning, part of life and part of moving forward.

As a young female instructor, failing in front of students can easily backfire. There have certainly been indications that this confirmed to some that I have no idea what I’m doing and that I’m not qualified. Despite that, I will continue to fail in front of my students and call myself out on it, because it makes the classroom a place they know they can try, fail and grow. If I can have a code failure in front of 200 of them and I’m supposed to know what I’m doing, they can fail in front of their lab partner or their roommate while they’re taking their first class. I take Ms. Frizzle from “The Magic School Bus” very seriously in her mantra: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy.” I believe the classroom should be that.

Q: What do you think makes for a successful learning experience?

BB: Connecting one small piece of the world, one star that seemed out of reach, to your constellation of mental models. I guess that’s more of what I define success within a learning experience as: When the world just seems to make a bit more sense than it did before, or when something new unfurls itself to you. Thinking about how we make it happen is really the magic question, isn’t it? I really think it requires meeting students where they are and helping them to build the bridge forward. I don’t want my students to feel like the work has been done for them; I see myself as helping them to uncover the path to the answers themselves. I think doing that really helps in connecting those unconnected pieces, because if it’s something you have to do yourself, you have to internalize it and make it make sense. When students get there and have that click of the piece falling into place — that’s magic. To me, that’s the moment you know that they’ve learned, and they feel it too. 

Distinguished Teaching Award

Since 1982, the annual Michigan Tech Distinguished Teaching Award has been awarded in two categories: Associate Professor/Professor and Teaching Professor/Professor of Practice/Assistant Professor. The award nomination and review processes are student-driven; finalists are selected based on student ratings regarding quality of instruction. Winners receive $2,500 and a plaque at an awards dinner sponsored by the Office of the President in the fall.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you face in your work and how do you address and/or overcome those challenges?

BB: My perspective is very different from what other folks in computer science often have, as I’m in both worlds — CS and CLS — the technology and the human. It can sometimes be hard to feel like I’m getting traction with ideas — for research, the classroom and beyond. Addressing this honestly takes having really good ideas and being able to back them up with a well-laid-out plan and research. Really, these are the same sorts of skills that I teach my students are so important as intro programmers — and they’re a major player in how I tackle my own challenges!

It also helps to have a great community of well-established scholars both at Michigan Tech and beyond that I can gain insight and new approaches from. Gaining the perspective of others is super important when overcoming really complex challenges, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to do so without some help and advice from my peers and friends. They often help me with finding the right narrative and voice as well, which can be a really big obstacle when attempting to publish or fund research in really novel or divergent areas. I’m still a work in progress with aspects of this, but I know having the feedback of others, coming up with new plans and communication paths, and being committed to continuing to adapt and improve are all skills that will help me continue to grow and tackle the academic challenges as well as those in the classroom!

Q: Last year you taught introductory computer science courses to dual-enrolled high school students from César Chávez Academy in Detroit. Some of those students helped select you for this award. How did you connect so meaningfully with them during a challenging pandemic year and across such distance? 

BB: This was one of the biggest concerns I had going into working with the students at César Chávez Academy! I wanted to make sure that the students didn’t feel like class was this removed and cold sort of space, and building that connection across distance can be really hard. I think again, authenticity really comes into play. We adapted a lot during the course partnership with Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, and I think the students could see that I wasn’t just phoning it in, but was trying really hard to make sure their classroom experience was optimal, even at a distance. I won’t lie, I almost cried the first day I realized, “Oh my gosh, they see me as someone they want to interact with” — when it wasn’t just class, but was actually a space they wanted to enter and engage with.

I think it also helped that I had been adapting to online teaching since the onset of COVID. I was a graduate student when the pandemic lockdowns first began, but I was helping teach the intro sequence at that time as well. So right from the start of the pandemic, I was thinking about the considerations to making a positive online experience. I even had considerations for students with low access to internet to be able to call in for lectures, which included slides uploaded early so they had time to connect and download the file, coupled with making a sound during class to let them know we were moving to the next slide. All of that early planning for pandemic distance teaching, I think, gave me the preparation to help provide the best experience possible in a new setting for the César Chávez Academy students. I also knew how to read chat on one monitor while doing another activity (like lecturing) on the second monitor before the pandemic. I think this skillset really helped me pivot strongly and give community even when students didn’t want to be on microphones. Knowing that I would read what they wrote and incorporate it into the lecture helped — and it really helped with the course partnership! The students were often much more comfortable typing their responses to lecture questions or asking questions through chat, and being able to keep up with that helped them feel included and comfortable, I think.

I also went down and visited the students at César Chávez Academy during the course’s duration, which of course helps establish connection even if it’s just a single meeting! I think this also showed the students that I was committed to their success and cared about them. It’s a long road trip to Detroit, and making it just to see them for a day or two, I think, made a big impact as well.

"Briana brings a unique perspective to her teaching. With her background in user experience, she is constantly questioning how new concepts might relate to knowledge already in the students' mental networks and she has delved into education and psychology in order to better understand how learning occurs. She engages students with tons of in-class activities, many of which involve tangible props that help students remember concepts well past their introductory courses. A favorite quote I recently read on Reddit was from a student who had Briana for our introductory programming course, but then switched schools - and was then shocked to find out that Java isn't inherently exciting."Linda Ott, chair of the Department of Computer Science

Q: Who (or what) inspired you to become a teacher?

BB: So many things! I went to a small rural school district growing up and I had so many teachers who stand out to me. Some for their dedication and service to students, some for their enthusiasm, some for their humor and some for a little bit of everything they brought to the classroom — but so many caring and wonderful educators there. I want to give a special thanks to Mrs. Kjendalen, my high school computing teacher. It’s a rarity for a district as small as ours to have programming courses, and without her I might not have had nearly as much insight into programming. And, she was an awesome female teacher in high school to role model it.

I love teaching the students at Tech, because being a student at Tech myself was inspirational for me. I did my undergraduate at Tech, and I enjoyed my time so much that after my master’s and time in industry, I wanted to come back for my Ph.D. here as well. My Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Linda Ott, was a huge inspiration to me during my undergraduate years, and I’m thankful to have had her mentorship during my Ph.D. She also pegged me correctly when I came in, that the introductory sequence would be a good fit for me. I was a lab instructor and found the connection between my user experience background and the classroom, which informed my research and inspired my teaching approach. I likely wouldn’t have found that if she hadn’t requested I be placed as a GTA (graduate teaching assistant) there during my Ph.D. studies.

Brianasaurus
A regular visitor to Briana Bettin's classes known for doling out dinosaur puns and short-armed high fives. 

As I just shared, I actually worked in industry for a bit as a user experience developer, and I wasn’t really sure that academia — and teaching — were my fit. When I was considering what was next for me, I asked myself what I really liked about my job, and three things came to mind: research, presenting to clients and area stakeholders, and mentoring/training our interns. Those three things helped me realize that I should probably go back and become a professor — because research, presenting and teaching are major parts of the job! I didn’t really set out believing I was cut out to be a teacher, or that it was my dream calling. My mom and her grandmother were both nurse practitioners, and I’ve always wanted to help people — but I’m a bit too squeamish to follow in their footsteps. Now, I’m at least a doctor (though not the same kind), and I can help in a different way: through research that helps move our society forward and through teaching, mentoring and hopefully inspiring our students as future leaders.

My parents also both showed me the value of education, and I think this helped me to not take my education, nor the amazing educators who helped me with it, for granted. My mom’s diligence in her schooling helped her be the amazing provider she is, and I saw her career successes and the impact she had on others growing up, which inspired me to want to have an impact as well. My dad stayed home with me and helped me grow as a student through his supportive care and through the lessons he taught me outside of the classroom. He supported my interest in books as a learning and bonding endeavor by having me read them aloud to him. This certainly helped me learn to present and speak, and also to feel confident in learning and failing, as he’d help me through when certain parts of novels like “Harry Potter” or “Eragon” were difficult for me. Both my parents actively helped out in our local community in various ways, such as my dad serving on the school board or my mom helping with volleyball and local health. Their active efforts showed me there’s always ways to be active, always ways to help out, and that there’s new things to learn and new ways to grow if you never stop looking for them.

Q: What opportunities does this award open up for you?

BB: I don’t even know! Seriously, I’m still gobsmacked that I was selected in my second year as an assistant professor. I’m so touched that my students felt impacted or inspired in some way to help nominate me, and that’s what really gets me emotional. I think the biggest thing this award does is inspire me. It inspires me to dream even bigger with what I’m doing as an instructor. I’m motivated that the authentic self I’ve been bringing to the classroom resonates. As I do research in CS education and in educational experience-related spaces, I’m hoping that this award also provides a bit of credibility as I work toward collaborations and research efforts as well. Overall though, I’m just thankful and motivated — and I’m sure that motivation will reveal new opportunities for growth in my classroom, my research and beyond.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.

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