Tyler William Thomas

PhD Student and GAANN Fellow, University of North Carolina
at Charlotte, College of Computing and Informatics

Teaching Portfolio

Teaching Philosophy

When I was a student, I learned what it meant to be a computer science student in our modern public universities. I could see the world from the perspective of a student. I developed many opinions about different courses and instructors. I pondered which were effective and which were not. As a TA. I learned what it means to be a TA in the computer science discipline. I learned how to tutor students, how to grade efficiently, and how to assist in managing a course. Many students would bring questions and concerns to me rather than the course instructor, and I was able to address those concerns. I took this knowledge from the perspective of a TA and added it to my teaching philosophy. Now, as I prepare to teach Web Application Development, I am encountering a new perspective, that of the instructor. I am now seeing the course from the other side of the room. Though the factors that influence me are now different as I stand in different shoes, I have not lost sight of the insights I learned as a student and a TA. These factors are made manifest in four key principles.

Teach Material from a Real-World Perpective

I believe that emphasis on teaching should first and foremost be based on knowledge and skills that can be applied by the students in the real world. I believe that students who attend class do so because they wish to obtain something useful out of the course. To that end, I plan to work with industry partners to ensure that the content being taught is both applicable in the real world and up to date.

Teach with Feeling

My experience as a student has taught me that anyone can pay attention to a boring instructor, but only the most determined of students actually will. My experience lecturing has taught me that instructors who speak with energy and feeling are much more effective at communicating the material of their courses. The job of the instructor is to teach the entire class effectively. Therefore, I believe that instructors should always teach with energy and volume to engage the students and keep their attention.

Accurately Communicate Expectations

As a student, I knew others who felt points were unfairly deducted from their scores based on poorly communicated assignment criteria. As a TA, I encountered that phenomenon as students sent emails stating that they had misinterpreted requirements. As a result, I recommended changes to assignments based on this information and students responded very positively. I believe that students are more engaged, will learn more, and will perform better if assignment requirements are clearly documented and discussed.

Use Activities to Encourage Student Participation

As a student, I would learn the theory behind a concept, but would never truly understand it until I used the concept in some assignment. As a TA, I have gained much experience with the flipped classroom approach to education. I believe that by involving students in participatory learning in the classroom, their focus on the material will increase. Consequently, I believe they will retain more of the material, and they will perform better in the course.


Teaching Seminars Attended

The Organization of Academic Writing

Dr. Lisa Russell-Pinson presented ways of improving academic writing, specifically research paper writing. We began by discussing types of abstracts. We moved from there to introduction and methodology sections. I learned that many different ways of writing abstracts are used in different fields. I also liked the “structured” way that the medical field writes abstracts, since it would make it much easier for a system to parse out sections of the abstract. It would also make it easier to read. I also learned how to make introduction sections much better. I learned several techniques which can be used to define a research niche or show how my research extends the research of others.


Teaching Research Reading Group

Muhammad presented a paper. The idea of the group is to reduce the amount of papers we have to read individually by having a different person present a paper each week. I learned how Bloom’s taxonomy can be leveraged to attain feedback regarding student understanding of course topics by handing out a matrix which the students place check marks in. The matrix represents a single topic and the rows and columns are different levels of understanding. The purpose is to get a general idea about how students feel about their understanding of the topic.


SOTL Open Swim

The presenters discussed the process of writing proposals for SOTL grants. They also discussed what characterized good proposals vs bad proposals and answered questions. I learned a lot about getting SOTL grants specifically, but I also learned a lot about proposals and grants in general. As a PhD student, my main task is to conduct research and be a TA. However, when I finish, I will be expected to bring in grant money through proposals despite having no knowledge of the process. This helped bridge that gap.


Leveraging Effective Conversation for Success

The event was a seminar which attempted to improve communication skills. It focused on aspects other than specific words and sentence structure. It began with a group exercise in which we had to assemble a puzzle, and we were allowed to direct questions at other students. However, we were forbidden from showing other students how to do the puzzle. It's primary goal seemed to be the promotion of communication skills rather than specific techniques to aid in communication, though a variety of body language was discussed. It also gave pointers for effective communication under stress. I learned the importance of being genuine in conversations. Though artificially faking smiles and attitudes may be considered socially appropriate, it is much better if these are genuine emotions. It seems that one could be much more successful in communication if one is able to genuinely think about a negative situation in a way which puts them in a positive mood.


Moodle Open Swim

Online tools such as Moodle have become ubiquities at universities today. Consequently, I gained much experience with Moodle as a student. However, as an instructor, mastery of the course administration side of Moodle is necessary for effective teaching and course management. Therefore, to gain these skills, I attended a seminar by Dr. Kurt Richter entitled "Moodle Open Swim." In this seminar, we received hands on instruction is various common tasks in Moodle. The seminar covered many important tasks in Moodle, such as announcements and forums, as well as organization of courses by weeks and topics. Additionally, it covered the creation of assignments and many aspects of the use of the gradebook. As a result of this seminar, I have gained much more proficiency with the course administration side of Moodle.


Engagement through Whole Group or Small Group Class Discussions

The instructor began by positioning the chairs and tables in a "U" shape. As soon as class began, she explained that the positioning of the chairs naturally fosters participation since everyone is facing one another instead of the back of each other's heads. We then each stated our name and a problem we had related to discussion. I mentioned that sometimes once discussion starts, it can be hard to turn it off (without nagging the students). They said that as instructors, we often have a strong knowledge of why we want students to have discussions, but clarifying that knowledge to students may help them focus. We then talked about different advantages that providing discussion. One participant mentioned that discussion difficult after bringing up controversial topics. It was suggested that by assigning students to take one side, regardless of their personal beliefs, would help expose some students to opposing views and keep students from feeling oppressed if they had a different opinion than the instructor. Following this, we started discussing ways of bringing up discussion in the classroom. Of particular importance was what to do when nobody in the classroom responds to a question which was meant to start a discussion. One participant mentioned that sometimes he deals with this problem by asking students why he asked the question. To give us some more ideas to take home, we were given a handout that covered various other ways of starting discussion. As a consequence of this seminar I feel much more equipped to start, manage, and meaningfully conclude student discussions in the classroom.


How Students Learn: Strategies for Teaching Based on the New Science of Learning

The presenter did a very good job at grabbing and holding everyone's attention, particularly at the beginning. He spoke quickly and full of energy the whole time. He began by stating that recall is easier than thinking. He explained that we actually use the same learning frameworks we used when we were 6 years old, but he said we don't focus much effort on learning how to learn. After that, he blew up a balloon and started to pop it. However, right before he popped it, he asked if we flinched. He said we flinched, but we didn't have to learn this. Following this, with everyone's attention, he asked if we were sure what color the balloon was and we were. He then asked if we knew where we placed the balloon and we did, but then he surprised us. He asked if we remembered how many steps he took, but of course we did not. He said this was because the brain automatically pays attention to what it thinks is important. He then stated that when we walk between parked cars, we don't notice the parked cars, but we look for moving cars. His main point was the courses should be designed in a way which the brain will naturally find interesting. Based on the effectiveness of his intro, I plan to incorporate these techniques into my courses.


Teaching Research/Webinar Presentations

The Role of Positive Regard in Self­ Regulated Learning: An Analysis of Student Evaluation Data

This paper summarized a study to determine whether or not being nice, a concept formally known as positive regard, affects the performance of students in both traditional classrooms and online courses. To do this the authors obtained student course evaluation data for both an online and traditional setting and performed a Varimax Rotation and Pearson Bivariate Correlation. They found that it does effect student performance in both settings, and it is an independent factor in online settings. I felt this was very important because, as instructors, we often put so much emphasis on the material we are teaching that we neglect small gestures. This research suggests that simple acts, such as smiling and thanking students for their questions, may have a real impact on student performance.


Identifying Proactive Collaboration Strategies for Teacher Readiness For Marginalized Students

This paper discussed the need catch students which are about to "fall through the cracks" or be marginalized, and help get them back on track. Although the research was focused primarily on elementary or high school students, many of the suggestions may still apply to teaching undergraduates at the college level. As a result, I felt that their approach of using a collaboration template and collaborative reflection will be very effective in future teaching at the college level.


Teaching Secrets That'll Make Students Say "Wow!"

I presented on a webinar to engage students from the start of the semester to the conclusion. It was mostly focused on various techniques used by different instructors to achieve this objective. It consisted of five major points which are the following:

  • Write the script (have a lesson plan)
  • Set the stage (get students excited)
  • Lecture without lecturing (use class activities)
  • Make it stick (use real world examples, bring in guest lecturers)
  • Have a strong ending (leave something for students to remember)

YouTube in the Classroom: Helpful Tips and Student Perceptions

This paper explored the use of Youtube in the classroom when combined with discussion. Fleck began by discussing the history of technology in the classroom and discussed existing research. She then provided an overview of Information Processing Theory and how it applies to the use of Youtube in the classroom. Following that, she discussed the methodology of their study and their results. Ultimately, she concluded that the use of short Youtube videos from popular culture in the classroom, when combined with discussion, leads to positive perception among students and increased learning of the material. Though I question aspects of the methodology, the paper caused me to seriously consider the potential effect of video clips and discussion in the classroom. When I presented the paper, much positive and fruitful discussion was generated around this topic.


Master Teacher Lecture Observations

Fall 2014-Dr. Richard Souvenir

Initially, Dr. Souvenir began with a review of prior material to catch students up to speed. He then began discussing the new material. However, shortly into the lecture, the lamp on the projector malfunctioned, and he decided to move the class to his lab. His lab contained a large space, many chairs for us to sit, a podium, a presentation machine, and a projector. However, since the problem had occurred, he decided to switch the lecture to a different lecture on genetic programming. As he was speaking, I noticed that he often changed the tone of his voice and held his hands close to his body. He also would point to the slides occasionally. Frequently, he looked around the room. He asked many difficult questions and answered them himself, right away. He also asked many easy questions and tried to get the class to answer them. Lastly, he would put himself in the context, saying things like "if I...this..", "now I can....."etc. I learned some techniques for keeping the attention of students. I had never considered having a backup plan in case of a projector failing. I also learned that placing oneself into the context of what is going on can be very beneficial to get the attention of students since it makes the material seem real. Also, by asking questions that puzzle students and answering them, it seemed to get students to stop, think, realize they had no answer, and then want to know the answer because the question seemed difficult. Moreover, I learned that by asking simple questions for the students to answer, it helped them focus attention since it gave them an opportunity to show their understanding of the material and avoid being discouraged by the difficult questions.


Spring 2015-Mr. Tony Kombol

Tony Kombol began his lecture a few minutes before the official start time in a rather unusual way, by playing a gothic metal song. The band he chose was Xandria. It was especially eerie considering the lighting of the room was strange and would flicker at random times. He then opened up a website called time.gov which showed the current time more accurately than any cell phone or desktop time counter. He started class on the exact second that the displayed clock showed 5:00pm. When class officially began, he showed clicker quiz results and made class announcements before discussing any actual course material. Following this, he started talking about the final exam. I was surprised at the amount of details that he provided. He stated the obvious rules, such as no electronic devices during the test. He also discussed various test taking strategies. For example, he recommended that students always answer multiple choice questions even if they don't know the answer. At first I thought that information like this was unnecessary and redundant. However, I then realized that often undergraduate students are just getting started in college, and may not be aware of these strategies and rules. Once he had covered basic test taking strategies and test information, he began the actual lecture. For the most part, the lecture was standard. He showed enthusiasm and kept eye contact with the audience. He also moved around and used a laser pointer to highlight specific information on the slides that he was discussing. All in all, I feel that using a very accurate clock and starting class exactly on time are very good for the students since it discourages students from showing up late and shows great professionalism. I also feel that being very specific with test taking information is good to do before tests. Lastly, the enthusiasm he displayed during presentation of the lecture material was very effective for maintaining attention even though the slides themselves were not visually appealing. Consequently, I feel that teaching with enthusiasm is very important


Teaching Experience

Instructor ITIS 4166 Network Based Application Development, Spring 2016
  • Restructured course to focus on real-world priorities
  • Live coded applications during class
  • Created example applications for students
  • Created assignments and projects
  • Taught servlets, sessions, application-database interaction, databases, MVC, JSP, beans, AJAX, and web security
  • Added workdays for increased student participation
  • Delivered in-depth lectures
  • Created many sets of slides
  • Graded assignments
  • Graded projects
  • Met with students regularly
  • Held office hours

T.A. Positions

Fall 2012-ITIS 2300 Web Application Development
  • Tutored Students in HTML, CSS, and Javascript
  • Graded Assignments
  • Graded Projects
  • Graded Final Exam
  • Held Office Hours
  • Met with other TA's to coordinate grading

Spring 2014-ITIS 5221 Secure Web Application
  • Tutored Students in SQL Injection, Cross Site Scripting, Cross Site Request Forgery, and Clickjacking
  • Graded Assignments
  • Graded Projects
  • Held Office Hours

Fall 2014-ITIS 2300 Web Application Development
  • Coordinated labs and grading with undergraduate TA's
  • Tutored Students in HTML, CSS, and Javascript
  • Graded Assignments
  • Graded Projects
  • Graded Final Exam
  • Held Office Hours

Spring, Fall 2015-ITIS 2300 Web Application Development
  • Developed clicker quizzes
  • Delivered guest lectures
  • Coordinated labs and grading with undergraduate TA's
  • Tutored Students in HTML, CSS, and Javascript
  • Graded Assignments
  • Graded Projects
  • Graded Final Exam
  • Held Office Hours

ITIS 4166 Assignments Created


ITIS 4166 Example Programs Created


Web Application Development Clicker Quizzes


Service

Foundation

In the fall of 2014, I decided to embark on an ambitious goal. I decided to found a student computing charity organization with the focus of providing computing services to non-profit organizations and low income individuals in need. Once I cleared the idea with my adviser, I began thinking about what this process would entail, and what kinds of services non-profit organizations might actually need. I then created a logo of three hexagons, and a name, Hexarity. I then drafted a recruitment form, passed it out during one of our HCI lab meetings, and gave a presentation in an effort to recruit members. It was a success, and several members joined. I then determined what sort of skills we had and what sort of services we could realistically perform, cross referenced with what non-profit organizations and low income individuals might actually need. Ultimately, we settled on four broad categories: web application design, cloud services, network management, data recovery, and computer repair.Once we had our plan, I put together a website and deployed it on a raspberry pi at home, after setting up all the necessary infrastructure. It was created to look professional and convey our general hexagon theme and identity. It also explains what sort of services we can perform, who is in our organization, and how to contact us. It can be accessed at the following url. Note that it is only supported in Firefox and Chrome, not IE: http://tylerthomaswebsite.net/hexarity.


Supportive Housing Communities

In the spring of 2015, I decided that it was time for the organization to make a serious impact. I decided that it would be best to locate a nonprofit organization in need of computing services that we could provide. When I began my search, it quickly became obvious that very large and well known organizations usually maintain their own paid IT staff. Additionally, if they need any development or consulting work done, they usually pay for these services when they need them. On the other hand, very small organizations usually only make a small impact and may not persist for more than a few months or years. Eventually, I found an organization called Supportive Housing Communities. This organization could be considered %quot;medium%quot; size. The organization is local to the Charlotte area, but it has been around since the late 1980's. The organization owns a large apartment block and strives to end homelessness by offering single room apartments and job placement services to the homeless. I contacted representatives of the organization and presented a written proposal for the development of a mobile web site, since they did not currently possess a mobile version of their site. Initially, it was well received. However, it was soon revealed that they used a content management system to push updates to their existing site, instead of going through the web developer. They did not wish to maintain two separate sites, but integrating the new mobile site into their content management system and training the staff was out of scope. However, their existing site had a variety of problems, and they did not possess the resources to hire a web developer. Therefore, we provided UI consultation services, general web development consultation services, code to fix the identified problems, and instructions for deployment of the code. We also provided a written tutorial and a program so that staff could publish additional information to the site in the future without reintroducing some of the existing problems. The final site can be viewed at the following url: http://supportivehousingcommunities.org/index.php.


Camp Blue Skies Proposal

In the fall of 2015, UNC Charlotte was approached by a large charity organization known as Camp Blue Skies, and the request was forwarded on to Hexarity. Camp Blue Skies strives to help mentally disabled adults. Though many organizations strive to help mentally handicapped people, most focus on children. When those children grow up, they often fall through the cracks. Those programs that do exist try to focus on the most pressing of issues, such as physical survival needs. They very rarely extend into the social domain. As a result, many mentally handicapped adults often spend most of their lives alone in their homes. Camp Blue Skies wants to change this by helping these handicapped people to socialize and have fun. To do this, they rent summer camps during the off season and host summer camps for mentally handicapped adults. To fund these actions, the organization raises money through a variety of channels such as fishing competitions and a march madness bracket competition known as Hoops for Charity. However, since this organization span many states and many regions, the quantity of participants has grown so much that the current manual approach is no longer scalable. To get around this problem, I met with three representatives from the organization in South Park. We discussed the current approach and their goals for a future system. Specifically, they desired a system in which a participant could send a link to a friend, who would follow the link, make a donation, and pick a march madness bracket. They would then receive automatic scoring and emails updating them as their scores change. Lastly, they would be able to view their performance among both their company, family, or friends as well as all who participate in the competition. To assess how to achieve these goals, I examined current platforms for hosting competitions and evaluated what would be done to create a new system. Ultimately, I proposed a hybrid approach which extends a current platform with some new components. The proposed work was approved a few months later. Informal communication showing the priorities of Camp Blue Skies and the proposed work can be viewed at the following url: priorities.pdf.

Camp Blue Skies Implementation

In the spring of 2016, I taught a dynamic web application development course. The skills taught in the course aligned with the needs of the camp blue skies project. Therefore, I discussed the project with my class and offered extra credit for students who wished to participate. Alternative extra credit options were provided. The students responded very positively to the opportunity to apply the skills they learned in the class to a real world application. Moreover, many also explicitely stated that they were pleased to make a difference in the community. To actually build the application, I broke the code construction task into different job tasks. Students who chose to participate then signed up for one of these tasks. Everyone who signed up for the same task were then assigned to a team. As of the time of this writing, most of the tasks have been completed. Camp Blue Skies plans to start using the project during March Madness 2017. The detailed job tasks can be found at the following url: jobTasks.pdf.