Promoting the power of teaching

August 24, 2021 By Sara Falligant

New award recognizes computer science undergraduate teaching assistants

When Charlie Neuhauser’s graduate advisor at Northwestern University, Mike Flynn, called to say he was helping establish a new department of computer science at Johns Hopkins in the early 1970s, Neuhauser was immediately on board.

“I packed up my car and drove to Baltimore,” remembers Neuhauser, who completed his PhD in electrical engineering and computer science at Hopkins.

Though Flynn left Hopkins a few years later, one of the four inaugural faculty members, Rao Kosaraju, remained in the Department of Computer Science for 50 years. Kosaraju retired in 2020 and was appointed Edward J. Schaefer Professor Emeritus.

“When I was there, the department was very tight knit because we were small, we were new, and we were different,” Neuhauser says. “Computer science wasn’t seen as an important long-term endeavor. Of course, now that’s all changed. Today, computer science is a very important course of study. And part of that is thanks to the work of people like Mike Flynn and Rao Kosaraju. Rao has made tremendous contributions to the field of computer science.”

To celebrate the department’s founding faculty and the lessons they taught him, Neuhauser established the Neuhauser Family Teaching Award in Honor of Dr. Rao Kosaraju. The award recognizes outstanding undergraduate teaching assistants, and the inaugural recipients were named this spring. Each winner receives a cash award to use at their discretion.

Neuhauser hopes the award will encourage students to learn teaching skills, an opportunity many don’t have as undergraduates. Experience writing, public speaking, and teaching, he says, is invaluable in an ever-changing field. In 1968, Neuhauser could walk around inside the first computer he worked on. Now, he carries a computer 100 times as powerful, his cell phone, in his pocket.

Kaushik Srinivasan spent three years as a teaching assistant and is one of the inaugural recipients of the Neuhauser Family Teaching Award.

“You will probably not do the same job, or be in the same field, when you start out as when you finish your career,” he explains. “What you have to do is build a toolbox for yourself that’s portable. The idea behind the teaching award is that it’s one tool that somebody can put in their toolbox and have for the rest of their life.”

For new alum Kaushik Srinivasan, one of the award’s inaugural recipients, the skills he learned during his three years as an undergraduate teaching assistant are already transferring to his job as a software engineer with Bloomberg L.P. He was appointed head teaching assistant his junior year, and in reviewing other students’ work, he learned how to write more readable code and quickly identify issues or errors.

“Teaching is a great experience, and I got back a lot more than I imagined,” Srinivasan says. “Of course, being a teaching assistant helped strengthen my conceptual understanding of the material. But I also became more empathetic as I had to understand the issues from the students’ point of view. Additionally, I maintained the rapport I built with students through other computer science classes we were both enrolled in.”

Fellow 2021 Whiting School of Engineering graduate and Neuhauser Family Teaching

Tanner Amundsen, one of the inaugural recipients of the Neuhauser Family Teaching Award, graduated in May.

Award winner Tanner Amundsen was promoted to lead course assistant his junior year, which required 15-20 hours of work per week. That time spent grading and leading office hours provided him with plenty of interview talking points ahead of landing a job doing computer and sensor netting research for the Applied Physics Laboratory.

He says the experience also helped him build both soft and technical skills, like code review and debugging, that he wouldn’t have gotten in a formal course.

“It was the extracurricular that I was never willing to sacrifice,” Amundsen says. “I received the notification that I would be receiving this award in the middle of finals, and it was a particularly hard finals season for me — my senior spring, my very last semester. And immediately, the impact of knowing my work is recognized and that Hopkins, and Hopkins Computer Science specifically, is recognizing the work of undergraduate course assistants felt very special. It made me feel very appreciated.”

Both Srinivasan and Amundsen say they are honored to be the inaugural recipients of the award, especially as they developed a genuine passion for teaching during their tenure as course assistants. And like Neuhauser, they hope the award will motivate more students to teach during their undergraduate years.

“Now that this award is getting more into the computer science lexicon,” Amundsen says, “I hope that it encourages more students who haven’t considered being an undergraduate course assistant to try it out, just knowing how much the department cares about and values the work that they’re doing.”

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