Lee Spector

Hampshire College
2003 DTS Award

Dr. Lee Spector
Dean, School of Cognitive Science
Professor of Computer Science
Hampshire College

Dr. Sector's Homepage

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Lee Spector.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab - the environment in which you work with students - what impression would s/he leave with?

On a good day students would all be "doing their own thing" to a large extent, consulting with me and with each other from time to time. My primary pedagogical strategy is to encourage individual engagement with open questions that students find personally captivating. I prefer to attend to elements of the standard curriculum later, as needed to support project work, after students are actively engaged in projects of their own devising. This can be difficult to arrange in a classroom setting, and sometimes my classes are more conventional and oriented toward large groups than I would prefer -- but immersion in projects driven by individual student interests is usually my goal.

What brought you to an interest in "advancing the frontiers of education" and to connecting your research to that work?

I find that my own understanding of the issues on which I conduct research is most dramatically improved when I try to explain or to demonstrate them to others -- particularly to others with little related expertise. I find the development of such explanations and demonstrations (many of which involve interactive activities) to be an extremely stimulating creative challenge. When I am successful the resulting activities serve simultaneously to clarify my own thinking about the research issues and to convey the substance of the issues to my students. In the ideal case the students will also be "infected" with some of my excitement about the issues and will develop enthusiasm to explore them further.

Were there risks in doing this? What were they? What made you persevere? How have you documented the successes of your educational efforts?

Experimental and novel explanations, demonstrations and activities will not always be successful -- there is always the risk that they will fall flat. The conventional, well-tested approaches are certainly safer, but I try to avoid them both because I know there are alternatives with greater potential and because I find the conventional approaches to be boring (both to my students and to myself). I am most engaged when I am trying to innovate, and I find that this engagement often translates into student engagement.

I have documented some of my educational methods in education-oriented publications and on the web, and I plan to do more of this in the future.

What connections have been of most value in pursuing these efforts, within your campus community as well as in the broader professional communities to which you belong?

The most valuable connections have been those on my own Hampshire College campus, where innovation in undergraduate education is given an unusually high priority. I have also benefitted from a few education-oriented workshops held by the American Association for Artificial Intelligence and from some education-related publications of the Association for Computing Machinery.

For faculty at an early career stage, it is difficult to figure out how to balance responsibilities for research and teaching while having a personal life; any advice - for them and for faculty at any stage?

My advice is that one should not seek to balance, but rather to integrate. My successes have come from finding ways to view my teaching, research, and personal interests as aspects of the same activity, not as different activities that must be balanced. I try to integrate my teaching and research by focusing my teaching on the general issues, and in some cases on the specific scientific questions, that are driving my research. When I can do this successfully my research benefits (because my work on developing curriculum helps me to clarify the research issues) and my teaching also benefits (because my engagement with the material is conveyed to the students). I have also sometimes managed to integrate my personal interests (e.g. in music and the visual arts) into these activities, and to parlay these connections into greater student engagement.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and education?

I think that institutions can help by providing both encouragement and flexibility. Engaged and creative teaching is not possible if curricula and teaching methods are too tightly constrained, and it will not occur unless it is clearly valued and rewarded in the local culture.

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts like yours and those of many other leading agents of change on campuses across the country?

I think it is important to send a strong message, nationwide, that good teaching is a creative enterprise and that teachers and students must be permitted to innovate and to follow their own interests. Standardization has some value, but there is much more value in the aspects of curriculum and assessment that defy standardization. At a more detailed level it is important to develop more mechanisms, like the DTS program, to reward innovations in education with funding and with professional recognition.

Please tell us about the project that you will be undertaking as part of the DTS award. How can others be involved with and/or continue to be informed about your work?

My project involves work on evolutionary computation systems, in which Darwinian principles of variation and selection govern the development of digital representations in simulated environments. Such systems have applications in several areas of science and engineering. They are also laboratory environments that present research opportunities for fields ranging from evolutionary biology to optimization theory. With the addition of facilities for high-quality 3D visualization and interactivity, such systems can also provide dramatic windows into complex and dynamically evolving virtual worlds. My project will build on my previous work on evolutionary computation to produce software that implements open-ended evolution in visually rich virtual worlds. One goal is to attract and engage undergraduates (both science majors and non-majors) via the intrinsically compelling life-like dynamics of behaviorally complex, visually presented virtual worlds. Another goal is to support fundamental research, both by undergraduates and by faculty. The software developed for this project will serve as the foundation for courses, research publications, and a book for general audiences that will also be appropriate for use in undergraduate courses. The project does not yet have a dedicated web page -- one is under construction. In the meantime more information can be accessed via my home page, at http://hampshire.edu/lspector.