Jun Yang Receives Teaching Award

May 31, 2013

Professor Jun Yang (center) with grad students Andrew Shim and You (Will) Wu

For Jun Yang, computer science means creativity. Whether he’s at the computer terminal or talking with others about the topic, he enjoys the inspiring and innovative moments computer science brings him.

"I’ve always been fascinated with computers and the feeling of creating something out of nothing - you can build a useful program out of the blue using no materials other than a computer,” Yang said. “It’s a sort of creative freedom in the same way that composers, architects, and painters get to be creative.”

Today, though, 38-year-old Yang encounters most of that creativity in the classroom through his role as associate professor in Duke University’s computer science department. In fact, it’s his work and dedication to revealing the real-world applications of computer science to both graduate and undergraduate students that led to his selection as this year’s recipient of the David and Janet Vaughn Brooks Award for teaching, one of four teaching awards within Trinity College.

“I love giving students a problem and seeing them attack it without fear,” he said. “They take even the hardest problems head-on, tackling them with an attitude and innovative thinking that can lead to them find something that’s been overlooked in previous work.”

The teaching bug bit Yang early in life. When his high school math teacher asked him to substitute teach, Yang realized his passion to unlocking complicated topics for students and making them accessible. According to Carlo Tomasi, computer science department chair, Yang’s passion hasn’t waned. In fact, it’s infused his teaching style since his arrival at Duke in 2001 and has served as the backdrop for his Brooks Award recognition.

“As a first-rate scientist and an inspiring teacher and mentor, [Yang] embodies the combination of intellectual rigor, dedication to teaching and mentoring, and love of students that these awards aim to recognize,” Tomasi said. “A conscientious and dedicated teacher who loves his students, [he’s] made valuable contributions to the computer science department’s educational mission and has expanded its scope, building important bridges, in particular, with the social sciences and public policy.”

When Yang first came to Duke, the computer science department didn’t offer database courses. Yang took the initiative to build the curriculum from the ground up, starting with an introductory course on database systems. Since the course began, its enrollment has swelled by more than 100 percent, spiking from fewer than 20 students to more than 40 currently. Students can also learn about advanced aspects of data management and processing in graduate-level courses.

Yang’s most recent experiment with the curriculum was the course on computational journalism he designed and taught in Spring 2012. Open to both graduate and undergraduate students, this class explores the use of computing to preserve public interest journalism.

“We are studying ways to apply computing in an effort to enhance investigative reporting,” Yang said. “We’re trying to ensure it doesn’t die along with traditional, print-based media.”

His current collaboration with assistant professor Ashwin Machanavajjhala highlights his pledge to reach out to students beyond just computer science majors. Together, the two are developing an “Introduction to Data” class, to be launched in Spring 2014, that will teach all interested students about basic concepts and techniques about data - from acquisition, management, analysis, to presentation. These skills both enhance the education Duke students receive and make them marketable, Tomasi said.

It took more than solid course designs and pedagogical dedication for Yang to receive this award. Tomasi also pointed to his personal nature - his commitment to his work, his love of working with students, and his overall enthusiasm.

“Yang spares no effort to optimize his students’ learning experience,” he said. “One sees many glimpses of long hours and sleepless nights devoted to making his classes as good as they can be. He has a desire to help students both by good work and personal attention.”

Receiving the Brooks Award is an enormous honor, Yang said, especially being selected from a field of high-caliber, talented, productive faculty. He hopes, however, at the end of his career, that he won’t necessarily be remembered for his teaching techniques or the long hours he logged.

“As a faculty member, it’s about producing great academic offspring,” he said. “It can be both the research results you produce and the students you train. It’s about giving people an education and letting them go out there and do amazing things.”