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Thomas Wins 2021 College Outstanding Teacher Award

Philip Thomas
Philip Thomas

Philip Thomas, an assistant professor at the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS), has been selected to receive the college’s 2021 Outstanding Teacher Award. The award is granted annually to a faculty member who demonstrates excellence and creativity in teaching, a positive impact on their students, and a mastery of their subject.

In recommending Thomas for the honor, one student commented, “I think Professor Thomas’s teaching is amazing … Although the material that he covers is challenging, his delivery and clarity make the toughest of all topics seem not too hard.” Thomas was also praised for bringing his research and open problems in the field to the classroom, sparking curiosity, and inspiring his students to tackle difficult challenges. Since 2015, he has taught courses on topics including machine learning and reinforcement learning. His course, COMPSCI 390A: Introduction to Machine Learning, emphasizes technical applications alongside real-world considerations like ethics, safety, and fairness.

Outside of the classroom, Thomas’s research on safety in artificial intelligence algorithms has gained national attention. His paper, “Preventing undesirable behavior of intelligent machines,” co-written by Professor Emeritus Andy Barto, Associate Professor Yuriy Brun, Assistant Professor Bruno Castro da Silva, doctoral student Stephen Giguere, and Emma Brunskill of Stanford University, was published by Science magazine in 2019 and became one of the top 0.1% of all publications tracked by Almetric in 2020. In February of 2020, Thomas testified before the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services, Task Force on Artificial Intelligence in a hearing on ways to reduce the effects of AI bias in financial services.

Thomas serves as co-director of the CICS Autonomous Learning Laboratory and works as a faculty researcher in the CICS Center for Data Science, investigating reinforcement learning, decision making, and AI safety. He received his doctorate in computer science from UMass Amherst in 2015.