Teaching excellence

Picture of Tim Alcon.

As an undergraduate student at Western Washington University, Tim Alcon tried out a few different majors before settling on broadcast media communication. “I hopped majors from different sciences and tried out a couple of social sciences as well,” he said.

But though he found certain aspects of communication interesting, after graduating he realized it wasn’t really what he was passionate about, so he returned to school to earn a master’s degree in computer science with the goal of teaching.

“I enjoyed learning a lot, and I thought that I would enjoy fostering that in others,” he said.

Alcon first taught computer science at a small college in the Napa Valley region of California for a few years. While teaching, he continued to fulfill his love of learning by taking additional classes. A biology sequence sparked his interest, especially genetics and microbiology, so he started thinking about combining his interests by studying bioinformatics, which draws on both biology and computer science.

As a result, Alcon went on to Iowa State University to get a master’s degree in bioinformatics. “When I was about to graduate, I intended to become a bioinformatics research librarian,” he said. However, that was right after the Great Recession began and those jobs began to dry up due to funding reasons.

Having previously been in China on a research fellowship, Alcon returned there to teach for a couple of years, and then came back to the U.S. and taught for a couple of years in his hometown of Seattle.

Since 2014, Alcon has been an instructor of computer science at Oregon State University, and his passion for teaching shows. During the 2020-2021 academic year, Alcon received the College of Engineering’s Online Teaching Award “for unusually significant and meritorious achievement in online teaching and student learning.”

One of his nomination letters for the award noted that “…[the courses] Tim created (CS 161 and 162) are the two single most important entry courses we offer in CS, responsible for how our students feel about our program and for setting their excitement and interest level in continuing at OSU in CS.”

In addition, Alcon earned the 2021 Ecampus Innovation Award, which also recognized his redevelopment of CS 161 and 162.

One of Alcon’s innovations was to make the courses more interactive. “Now there are code snippets that students can run inside a web page that talks about the material,” he explained. “Students can read a little bit, and then try it out, they can read a bit more and try more code, all without leaving the page.”

Another modification Alcon made was to change the programming language students learn in these introductory classes from C++ to Python, which he feels is friendlier for beginners.

“I think that’s important because if you’re teaching the introductory classes, getting students to stay in the program is important. If they have a bad first experience, they might feel that computer science is not for them,” Alcon said.

As a result of these changes, the withdrawal rate from these introductory classes decreased significantly.

Picture of Tim Alcon riding bike on trail.

It’s also important to Alcon that students understand that they’re not just a number.

He works hard to make sure his students know he’s approachable, especially since online communications can sometimes sound terse. “Students need to feel comfortable being able to approach me and know that I’m there to help them, he said.

When he’s not teaching or working on refining the courses he teaches, Alcon enjoys outdoor activities, including running, mountain biking, and climbing. “Corvallis is a really nice place; it’s great to have the McDonald-Dunn Research Forests nearby and I still need to try the Corvallis-to-the-Sea trail,” he said.

— By Gale Sumida
June 2021