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Tea and Computer Science

Teaching award winner challenges students without intimidation

In small classes, Alexander Hartemink makes tea for his students throughout the semester.

"It promotes the notion that we're working together to accomplish something, that we're on the same team; and besides, it's soothing," said Hartemink, a 34-year-old assistant professor of computer science.

Hartemink's effort to create a welcoming classroom environment for his students is just one of the reasons why he won the 2007 David and Janet Vaughn Brooks Award, one of the four Trinity College Teaching Awards. Winners are chosen by the Arts and Sciences Council and former teaching award recipients.


Alexander Hartemink

This award recognizes faculty for their ability to encourage intellectual excitement, their openness to students and their commitment to teaching, among other criteria.

In his nominating letter, Pankaj K. Agarwal, chair and professor of computer science and professor of mathematics, said Hartemink's broad knowledge allows him to teach students the latest developments in the field.

"He's a great professor and the students like his classes, not because they are easy but because they find the experience stimulating and exhilarating," Agarwal said.

Hartemink, who has been teaching at Duke for six years, says his style and philosophy are based on "inquiry-based, experiential learning." That means inspiring students to engage with the material for their own reasons, primarily through relevant, hands-on projects whose solutions the students are eager to find.

"I tell students not to do the work to please me or accomplish my goals, but to please themselves and accomplish their goals. I encourage them to be responsible for their own education. I find this to be motivating for students; it makes them want to work at the course because they care about it," Hartemink said.

His inquiry-based approach also promotes connections between the classroom and the research lab: "I recognize that research and teaching are interwined. I try to get students excited about open-ended research through open-ended projects," he said.

From time to time, Hartemink also takes his class on field trips to visit DNA sequencing facilities in the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy or visualize 3D protein structures in the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment.

Hartemink can't say precisely how he came up with his teaching style and philosophy, but suggests it's probably a synthesis of his reflections on his own school experiences.

"I remember what my teachers did to make a course experience challenging and stimulating; I draw from that," he said. "I didn't particularly enjoy classes that expected little of students by being too easy, so I try to make my classes engaging and challenging."

But challenging doesn't mean intimidating, he said.

"Sometimes students are afraid to ask questions in a technical class because they think the professor may see them as unwelcome interruptions," Hartemink said. "I try to make my classes discussion-driven lectures. I want my students to know their questions are important."

Hartemink, a Duke alumnus who graduated in 1994, didn't major in computer science as an undergraduate. Instead, he focused on math, physics and economics as a triple major.

He didn't start graduate school in computer science either.  He first received a master's degree in economics at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, which may be where he developed an interest in the tea he now shares with his students. "Perhaps out of nostalgia for my time in the UK, I enjoy making, drinking and learning about tea."

"I decided to do something else after my time in Oxford and that's when I started to study computer science," he said. "Computational biology is a combination of computer science, biology, statistics, math and physics, and my research interests are in computational systems biology and machine learning."

Hartemink's experience and dedication have benefited his students, said Rahul Satija, a former student and current Oxford Ph.D. candidate. Satija said that when he successfully applied for the Rhodes Scholarship, Hartemink advised him on interview techniques and shared stories from his time in Oxford.

"The constant emphasis on implementing what we learned and understanding how to use our knowledge to solve research problems is what I enjoyed most from [Hartemink's] class," Satija said.

Hartemink said his ultimate goal is to "encourage and equip students to grow in character and intellect in preparation for lives that have a powerful impact on society."

Jshontista Vann is a recent graduate of North Carolina Central University interning in the Office of News & Communications