The Department of Computer Science had much to be proud of this past spring, when Dr. Sunil Shende, Associate Professor of Computer Science, received the Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence, an annual award given to a select group of professors who demonstrate commitment to and passion for teaching.

As a young child in India, Dr. Shende was interested in the sciences, particularly in math. His college entrance exam scores were high enough to allow him entry to the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, where he studied computer science, a field that was beginning to flourish at that time. Always intent on obtaining his Ph.D., Dr. Shende enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to study computer and information science after receiving his bachelor’s degree. At Penn, for the first time, Dr. Shende had the opportunity to take many courses that were outside of his immediate field. “Studying philosophy and logic helped inform my study of computer science,” Dr. Shende says, and led to his appreciation of a liberal arts education.

Dr. Shende began his career at Rutgers-Camden in 1998, after he spent eight years and received tenure at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. While he calls his former academic home a “great place,” Dr. Shende was drawn to Rutgers-Camden because he was trying to solve a ‘two-body’ problem, where he and his spouse, who is also in academia, were sometimes geographically quite far apart. The nascent computer science department at Rutgers-Camden fit the bill both as part of the solution to the problem and as an exciting, new professional opportunity.

At the time that Dr. Shende joined the Rutgers-Camden faculty, the computer science department was beginning to grow, and Dr. Shende enjoyed being part of its development. In 2005, he took on the role as department chair, which allowed him to chart the course of the department, including a complete re-design of the curricular requirements for the major to meet the recommendations of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the professional organization that oversees computer science programs world-wide. He was also instrumental in conceiving and starting the computer science graduate program, now, a master’s of science in scientific computing program.

The small size of Rutgers-Camden also allowed for Dr. Shende to develop partnerships with scientists in other departments. In 2009, Dr. Shende, along with Dr. Joseph Martin, Professor of Biology and Director, Center for Computational and Integrative Biology (CCIB), Dr. Danny Bubb, Professor of Physics, Dr. Benedetto Piccoli, Professor of Mathematics and Joseph and Loretta Lopez Endowed Chair, and Dr. Alex Roche, Associate Professor of Chemistry was awarded a National Science Foundation grant for the project “Q-STEP: Community of Quantitative Scientists,” which gave STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) students a chance to “go beyond coursework and interact with other STEM students.” Currently, as part of his work with the CCIB, Dr. Shende teaches a sequence of introductory computing and algorithms courses for scientists.

Supporting students is a passion of Dr. Shende’s. Along with working on the Q-STEP grant, he also worked with students at the Julia R. Masterman School in Philadelphia and is currently on an informal advisory committee that is helping to draft a computer science curriculum at the George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, also in Philadelphia. He’s interested in exposing students early on to the field of computer science, and showing them its impact on research areas in both engineering as well as in arts and sciences.

At the university-level, Dr. Shende is a vocal advocate of undergraduate research. “Research eventually produces real-world applications and what undergraduate need to understand is that classroom learning is about fundamental ideas that catalyze research,” he says. Also, Dr. Shende notes that while an undergraduate, there was no push to pursue research topics; consequently, he says, “I owe it to [my students] to mentor them and encourage their research.” Past students of Dr. Shende’s have used research as a springboard for great success; one such student, Jennifer Rubinovitz (CCAS ’13), researched primal-dual matching algorithms with Dr. Shende. She is now in a prestigious computer science graduate program at Columbia University.

Hand-in-hand with promoting undergraduate research is creating a classroom environment in which students thrive. In particular, Dr. Shende’s teaching of three different Honors College seminars (Ideas, Artifacts, Personalities: A Historical Perspective on Computer Science (2005), Reflections on “Godel, Escher, Bach” (2007), and Social and Information Networks (2011)) helped him to hone his teaching skills. Not only was he tasked with making computer science accessible to students without a technical background, but he grew to appreciate how a successful teacher’s pupils will be able to think for themselves and actively demonstrate a solid understanding of the material.

Despite earning a significant accolade like the Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence, Dr. Shende isn’t resting on his laurels. In the spring he taught a newly developed course called Big Data Algorithms, and he’s currently creating a new hybrid course for the Digital Teaching Fellows program, which trains professors to use technology in the classroom. His current and future students are sure to benefit; clearly, Dr. Shende’s focus is on his students, and how his knowledge and experience can be best utilized to serve them.

About Dr. Sunil Shende

Rank: Associate Professor of Computer Science
Hometown: Pune, India

Written By Julie Roncinske