The University of Kentucky Center for Visualization & Virtual Environments

Vis Center Post-Graduate Student Wins Teaching Award

Sami explains his surgery research to a group of UK undergraduates.

The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 48th out of 133 nations based on the quality of math and science instruction.  Palestine is graded even lower than the United States.  Teachers in war-torn Palestine struggle daily to teach students who are enduring violence.  Sami Taha Abu Snaineh, a Palestinian computer science post-graduate student at the University of Kentucky, hopes to advance his homeland’s computer science instruction. Sami moved from his home in Palestine to work at IBM in Lexington.  In 2008, he began studying computer science at UK. After he finishes his doctoral studies at UK in late 2012 or early 2013, he intends to move back to Palestine permanently and study computer science pedagogy and computer vision.  He will focus on improving higher education in Palestine. Sami said, “I consider teaching not just a career, but a mission.”

Examples of stagnating STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are common: men outnumber women in STEM fields, countries needs skilled science teachers, and science curriculums fail to capture the imagination of students.  One problem lies behind all of these issues – a communication breakdown.  Scientists remain unable to effectively communicate their research and therefore fail to inspire talented young people to launch a STEM career.  The same communication issues plague university professors.

A Ph.D. is a research degree.  However, most Ph.D. candidates become professors with both research and teaching responsibilities.  Often, universities emphasize building research skills and so they under prepare future professors for a teaching career.  Preparing Future Faculty, or PFF, aims to span this disconnect.  PFF churns out better research professors.  PFF pairs participants with a mentor to practice a faculty member’s full responsibilities ranging from research to teaching.  Sami participated in UK’s PFF program.  Tau Beta Pi, the Engineering Honor Society, chose him as the 2012 “Outstanding Teaching Assistant in Computer Science.”

A surgeon practices drills with a laparoscopic surgery model.

Sami credits PFF with his success as a teaching assistant.  “I think that program helped me a lot in improving my teaching skills and improving my vision of how to transfer knowledge and information to the students.”  As a teacher of a night class, Sami felt the struggle of holding the students’ interest. PFF taught him to intersperse his lectures with activities to capture their attention.  He believes computer science departments often fail to prepare Ph.D. students for teaching at a university.

PFF gives doctoral students the opportunity to understand what it means to be a faculty member.  Coming to UK helped Sami realize his passion for helping students unlock the joys of computer science.   Sami learned how to conduct research, solve problems, and share his vision of the world with students. He researches computer vision of minimally invasive surgery, or laparoscopic surgery, to quantify the skills of a surgeon-in-training.  He assesses a surgeon’s skills based on the surgeon’s eye and hand movements. Then he compares the eye and hand movements of a novice to those of an expert.  At UK, he also learned the essential skill for a scientist: communication. Dr. Seales, his mentor at UK, taught Sami that finding a solution fixes only one part of a problem; convincing others to follow your plan counts equally.  Sami learned that comprehension encompasses two levels.  Understanding a concept for your own use constitutes the first step.  The final rung on the ladder of understanding is the ability to teach the concept to someone else.  Sami climbed to the top of this ladder while at UK, so now he will gather his new skills, ideas, and inspiration and take them home to Palestine to motivate a new generation of Palestinian computer scientists.

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