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Professor Ramesh Sitaraman Wins UMass Amherst Distinguished Teaching Award

Ramesh Sitaraman

UMass Amherst College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) Professor and Informatics Program Director Ramesh Sitaraman is one of four faculty recipients of the university’s 2019–2020 Distinguished Teaching Award (DTA). Sitaraman has previously been nominated eight times for this highly competitive and prestigious campus-wide honor, the only student-initiated award on campus.

In nomination materials, Sitaraman’s colleagues described him as an innovative instructor who engages his students in participatory learning, with one nominator calling his educational impact on undergraduate and graduate students “spectacular and without parallel.” As a new member of the UMass Amherst computer science faculty, Sitaraman took responsibility for redesigning the undergraduate algorithms curriculum. He created COMPSCI 311, which took a novel approach to teaching algorithms and is now the only required 300-level course for computer science majors. Sitaraman also revamped COMPSCI 611, the graduate course that is the cornerstone of the graduate algorithms curriculum.

Over the course of teaching these courses over two decades, his students have given him superb ratings, describing him as “brilliant and efficient” and “the best professor I’ve had,” while praising his “careful analysis of the subject matter” and “rare ability to break complex concepts into simple, easy to understand terms.” 

“My goal as a teacher is to transform the student from a computer programmer who writes software by the seat of their pants to a computer scientist who can mathematically design and analyze their algorithm before implementing it in software,” explained Sitaraman. “Fostering this sea change from a programmer to a scientist is a challenge, since it requires the student to learn an entirely new algorithmic way of thinking about problems.”

According to his students, Sitaraman demonstrates a love for his discipline by enriching his lectures with anecdotes, offering explanations in a slow and deliberate way, and allowing time for students to ask questions during and after class. One student remarked, “Professor Sitaraman’s [particular] strength is his pace; he is a master of the art of going at a speed that [works for] everyone, and yet covers the entirety of the material.”

“He has an extraordinary record of maintaining the highest level of teaching excellence over a period of 25 years, even as the enrollment in his courses has more than doubled in just the past decade,” said James Allan, chair of the faculty at CICS.

Most recently, Sitaraman led the creation of the informatics program at CICS, which is an interdisciplinary undergraduate major that applies computational principles to other disciplines. The BS in informatics program was approved in 2019 and currently has 120 undergraduates enrolled. As the director, he is responsible for the program, including its vision, curriculum, and operations.

The DTA, administered by the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, honors exemplary teaching at the highest institutional level. Award recipients are selected by a two-step process involving undergraduate and graduate students and a committee of past DTA winners. Awardees are recognized in the undergraduate commencement program and have their names inscribed on the DTA memorial wall in the Integrative Learning Center on campus.