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It’s Complicated

Deep caring, creating community and humor help Alison Norman raise all students to the same high standard in the difficult field of operating systems.

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When Alison Norman was 7, she ran a school on the weekends for her 3-year-old sister and her sister’s friends. “I had attendance charts and worksheets,” she recalls. “We had math and writing and apparently punctuation, because my mom found a worksheet where I’d made my sister write a period 25 times and counted some of them wrong for being too big.” Teaching the importance of detail is at her core. “I don’t think there was any way I was going to escape it,” she says with an explosive, endearing laugh.

Now, Norman is one of two UT Austin professors to win this year’s Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award. The Board of Regents established the $25,000 honor to reward the best in undergraduate teaching. An associate professor of instruction in computer science, Norman teaches two sections of UT’s introductory course on operating systems, with about 75 students each, and co-teaches a freshman computer science ethics course

Many of her former students claim hers is the hardest class they ever took, and she doesn’t doubt it. “It’s very difficult. I require them to do things they haven’t done before. They’re learning how to navigate a large software system, and at the same time, they’re implementing these new concepts that they haven’t even thought about before.”

Norman grew up near Athens, Georgia, and earned her bachelor’s at Georgia Tech before coming to UT for a masters and PhD, the latter of which she received in 2010. When she was learning operating systems, she was dealing with familiar concepts and terms. By contrast, today’s students came of age after operating systems had become largely opaque. “Everything has just magically worked,” she says of the difference, “and for them, a much larger percentage of the terms are just new.” 

Adding to the challenge, she requires them not just to memorize the correct answers — they must think critically. “I teach how things were originally done, what the problem was with that, and how was it done next. This drives them crazy, but they can’t possibly understand why we have the complexity we have today without understanding how we got here. Also, computers are changing rapidly, so they have to be prepared for the next step.”

The stakes are high. “When we program things incorrectly, we can kill people, and that can’t be allowed, so we have to all get to the point where we can think critically about big systems.” One frequently taught case study is that of Therac-25, a radiation therapy machine involved in at least six accidents between 1985 and 1987 in which patients were given massive overdoses of radiation due to programming errors, sometimes giving patients doses of radiation hundreds of times greater than normal. Other examples include flight software and computer-assisted design of buildings.

The how-we-got-here method is a standard way to teach the subject, she says. What distinguishes her teaching is how she invests in every student’s success. “I believe that the students all have the ability to learn the material. If they’re struggling, most of the time there’s an outside reason for it. Sometimes the outside reason is they’re 20, and their time management is bad!” she says with a laugh. “But it’s not intellect or capability — it’s bad decision-making when you’re young, which a lot of us have been guilty of, right?”

Other students have different challenges. “I had a student who kept falling asleep in class, and when I talked to him, he revealed he was working the night shift at a hotel, then coming in and trying to learn operating systems. I said, ‘I see why you’re asleep. I would also be asleep!’

“Part of what makes me so successful is I really see it as my job to bring the entire class through the course. I ask students to talk to me before they drop. Sometimes it’s right for them to drop. Other times it’s something we can fix. It’s my job to bring everyone up to the same high standard before they leave the course. We don’t lower the bar.” 

No doubt, her jovial personality helps the medicine go down in this demanding course; her office door is papered over with funny cartoons about coding and irreverent self-help tips.

Norman says computer scientists have a reputation for being arrogant and not paying attention to the rest of the world. “I think that’s because a lot of times they haven’t been trained to pay attention to other people.” So she has created a peer tutoring program, asking successful students whether they would be willing to tutor and struggling ones whether they would be willing to be tutored. “The tutors all get A’s because they’re teaching the material two hours a week at that point. That program has been amazing.”

She also is a mother of three, ages 12, 8 and 5. “My students sometimes complain that I ‘mom’ them,” she laughs. “I’m like, ‘Sorry about that! You should have done your work!’ ” Norman clearly has done hers.