PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Ignatios Vakalis

What works: Observations from the field

Ignatios Vakalis is Professor and Chair of Computer Science at California Polytechnic State University – San Luis Obispo.

Faculty for the 21st Century members reflect on their experience in making a difference for their students and for the communities of which they are a part.

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?

For the last six years, I have taught a number of courses in the field of Computational Science, thus doing science in- silico, where the computer classroom is the science laboratory. Since modeling and simulation is the key in teaching and learning computational science, it fosters explorations on the “what-if” questions. So a visitor will observe a lot of group work, a high level of interactively between and among groups, and continuous explorations of the “what-if” questions made possible (in a short amount of time) by using a portfolio of professional modeling software.

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

My interdisciplinary education background (Physics, Computing, Theoretical and Applied Math), gave me the necessary tools to see the real connections and between mathematics, computing, and science. This translated into my vision for developing a signature curriculum in Computational Science, where students can see these connections during their undergraduate experiences (and not have to wait until the PhD level) and thus become more eager to go deeper in these fields. I always bring into class the latest advances in the field of parallel computing as being an integral part of computational science.

Were there crises in doing this? What made you persevere?

At the beginning (1996), no-one at Capital University believed that we could pull this off. I was convinced that this is the future, and while not tenured, I wrote the first NSF- ILI proposal to secure funding to integrate parallel computing at the undergraduate curriculum. Clearly the success of this grant changed the mindset of administrators and colleagues. Over the next several years, I have received a number of grants from NSF and the W.M. Keck foundation to develop a signature curriculum in Computational Science as well as national consortia. I was very fortunate to work with many great and passionate colleagues who helped to make the dream a reality….. and we have only scratched the surface of what is possible.

What connections have been of most value in doing this?

Numerous...... First with my students; I saw many changes and their eyes sparkling about the discipline of computational science and about the opportunities it provides, especially for undergraduate research. I have connected many students with local industry and research centers for undergraduate research experiences. I met a number of intriguing educators at the national level who are equally passionate about computational science. In addition, as the chair of three International Conferences on the Teaching of Mathematics, I had the great fortune to meet and interact with mathematicians at the global scale who are very interested in reforming the teaching and learning of undergraduate mathematics.

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

A culture that rewords and recognizes creativity and risk-taking. A culture that invests in efforts to improve education. A culture that has a collection of passionate colleagues… who are willing to work in groups and try new things.