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Photo of Kassem Fawaz teaching
4/15/2021

For Kassem Fawaz, teaching big classes still means focusing on individual success

Written By: Jason Daley

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In his short time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kassem Fawaz, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has already made a big impact on students. That’s why Fawaz recently received the 2021 Benjamin Smith Reynolds Award for Excellence in Teaching from the College of Engineering.

 Kassem Fawaz
Kassem Fawaz

Much of Fawaz’s success is due to his student-centric teaching style and an ability to explain complex topics in a way that non-expert students can understand. “He actually cares about students’ understanding of the material,” remarked one student in a recent class evaluation. “He engages discussions with interesting ideas. Even if the student does not have a strong technical background in the area, he explains it in an easy and simplified way.”

Fawaz formats his classes, which include graduate and undergraduate courses, as structured discussions that not only help students through technical engineering issues, but also allow for consideration of the ethics of engineering decisions. That area that is becoming increasingly important as computer engineers grapple with security and privacy issues, which is Fawaz’s primary research interest. “The security and privacy of our systems start with making the future developers of these systems—the students—aware of such issues,” he says.

But it’s not just his engaging style that has led to Fawaz’s teaching success; he also pays close attention to course content. Most notably, he has overhauled ECE 454: Mobile Computing Laboratory, one of three capstone courses for computer engineering seniors.

Fawaz keeps the problem-based learning experience course timely, integrating current issues in mobile computing into the curriculum in ways that enhance student engagement. He also upgrades to state-of-the-art software and hardware when possible to make the course more useful to students who will soon enter the workforce.

The biggest update so far, however, is the seven hands-on mini labs he designed to help students master the Android API. Progressing through each lab, students gain experience with different elements of mobile design like user interface, sensors and wireless networking before beginning their capstone project, which brings together all those elements.

During the COVID-19 pandemic when classes could not meet in person, Fawaz’s approach to teaching has also been exemplary. In fact, in February 2021, he was invited to make a presentation about his remote teaching approach during the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents meeting.

Fawaz redesigned the ECE 454 course for remote instruction to include two synchronous lectures per week, which helped build a sense of community within the group. Smaller groups of students met with a TA and an undergraduate student assistant six hours per week to collaborate remotely on the mini-labs, with students working on Google Pixel XL phones Fawaz shipped or delivered to them. He also introduced a module on pandemic digital contact tracing techniques that made the course even more relevant to current events.

Fawaz himself also made sure to interact with each student using Microsoft Teams as part of his general philosophy of not letting any student fall behind. Those check-ins, however, were even more critical during remote learning, when students were facing increased stress, isolation and personal issues related to the pandemic.

“Coursework is one of several challenges the students have had to deal with during the pandemic. Checking in frequently with the students along with flexibility in course deliverables made them feel supported and contributed to their success in the class,” says Fawaz.

Students are taking notice of Fawaz’s classes. Prior to his work on ECE 454, the course often had the lowest enrollment of the computer engineering capstone courses. Now, it regularly maxes out its available slots.