Tough-love teaching wins computer scientist Chancellor’s Award

Sanjiv Bhatia, associate professor of computer science at UMSL, will receive the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching on Sept. 16 during the State of the University Address. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Sanjiv Bhatia, professor of computer science at UMSL, will receive the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching on Sept. 16 during the State of the University Address. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Read through the nomination letters from former students of Sanjiv Bhatia, professor of computer science at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and a common theme becomes apparent ­– his classes are tough, but his teaching is inspiring.

“Mr. Bhatia had personally pushed me to do more and work harder than any other professor that I have ever had,” wrote Srdjan Grubor, who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from UMSL. “Yes, the classes were always hard but the goals were always within reach with a touch more work.”

“I struggled in his class,” wrote Dan Hagrman, an alumnus of the computer science master’s degree program, “and I’m very glad he pushed his students because we learned a great deal.”

“He holds a high standard,” wrote Sharlee Climer, an alumna of both the bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, “and I knew from day one that I would need to invest focused time and effort to meet that standard.”

Grubor is now an independent programmer and computer repair professional for the greater St. Louis area, Hagrman is a software engineer at Boeing and Climer is a research assistant professor of computer science at Washington University in St. Louis.

So it’s no surprise that Bhatia is being recognized for the great influence his teaching has had on student lives. He is the recipient of the 2015 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and will be presented with a plaque and a $1,000 honorarium during the annual State of the University Address on Sept. 16 in the J.C. Penney Building at UMSL.

“I was very happy to receive the award,” said Bhatia in an interview.

He finds teaching invigorating and appreciates his students.

“I like to work with students, as it keeps me challenged, too,” he said. “Computer science changes constantly, and I love to be at the cutting edge of technology. I both teach and learn from students as they pick up on new technology fast and query me on what goes behind the technology.”

Students appreciate that environment where there is a mutual give and take of knowledge.

“He shared with us his current research and past experiences, including particular difficulties and how he overcame them,” said computer science alumnus Lawrence Appelbaum in his letter. “He always answered students’ questions thoroughly, and we often had a discussion-oriented classroom environment.”

And many students found that Bhatia’s lessons extended beyond the classroom.

“The bridging of the gap between academic research and its actual real-world implementations never seemed more real to me than in his classes,” Grubor said. “I have referenced work or research that was mentioned in his class exponentially more than any other teacher’s.”

Considered a challenging field, computer science can often seem so complex and daunting that students feel they lack a full understanding. Bhatia’s teaching methods offer them the tools to grasp lessons and use them in their own programming.

“What impressed me the most was that Dr. Bhatia would take difficult concepts and explain them in a clear and transparent way that made them not only comprehensible, but also provided insights into their nature, thereby making it possible to play with their underpinnings,” Climer said.

Bhatia said that he likes to make the students think about problems and not provide the answers right away. When he assigns them work, he prefers they put in some effort before giving them a hint on how to move forward. Once they are stuck, he’ll look at their code.

It’s a method that has created some great computer programmers for the region and the classroom.

“As a community college instructor, I still emulate Dr. Bhatia’s classroom demeanor and instructional techniques,” said Appelbaum, who is now an assistant professor of computer information systems at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville.

As for Bhatia, he is happy to have passed on his knowledge and still finds teaching an honor. For him, education is “the greatest gift someone can give or receive.”

The UMSL Experience

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