Photo by Jason Smith.
Photo by Jason Smith.

Blase Ur, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Computer Science, was one of five UChicago faculty to receive a 2021 Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award, believed to be the nation’s oldest prize for undergraduate teaching. 

The awards, which are nominated by students, honor faculty members who provide exceptional teaching and mentorship. In this unusual year, “Students have found inspiration even without traditional classroom settings—guided by faculty who have navigated unusual circumstances with empathy, curiosity and a spirit of collaboration,” said the official announcement.

Ur ascribes his teaching philosophy to a musical experience: playing bass in his high school jazz band. His band teacher believed in “giving students the opportunity to take the reins” from the very start, Ur said, allowing even freshman students to work their way up to leadership roles quickly. In his courses on computer security and privacy, Ur goes beyond technical instruction to encourage his students to debate, find their own research interests and make connections between computer science and broader society.

“I really value engagement with the world and its practical problems, demonstrating how fundamental tools of computer security, privacy, and ethical computing apply to each week’s headline news,” Ur said. “Ultimately, I try to convey that real-world problems often don't have clean solutions. They require approaches at the intersection of coding, math, design, law, philosophy and communications. I think it’s critical for students to see holistically how the modern world works, particularly the role of computation and technology.”

As with jazz, that approach requires improvisation. In courses such as “Introduction to Computer Security” and “Ethics, Fairness, Responsibility & Privacy in Data Science,” Ur constantly refreshes his curriculum with example topics pulled from the headlines—wading into a recent debate about controversial research on operating system security or, last spring, critiquing the design of contact tracing apps for COVID-19.

In both in-person and virtual environments, Ur also values co-teaching because he can debate these issues with a colleague, modeling healthy intellectual disagreement for his students and demonstrating that many foundational topics in applied computer science are not yet settled.

“Blase teaches each of his classes with an infectious enthusiasm for the subject,” a group of his students wrote in a nomination letter. “This helps students engage in discussion of the questions and ethical quandaries he poses far beyond the classroom. He spends countless hours designing brand new assignments that introduce students to crucial tools used in industry, while inspiring us to think about problems more deeply.”

Read about the rest of the 2021 recipients of the Quantrell and Graduate Teaching and Mentoring Awards.

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