Meet the Faculty - Elizabeth Jensen

Tell us about your journey to the University of Minnesota.

I began playing around with programming in fourth grade with Microworlds and Lego Logo, and really enjoyed being able to make my Lego creations move according to a plan I had created. I first encountered these in school, but my family had always had computers at home too, so I was able to explore further at home. My parents supported my interest and gave me the first Lego Mindstorms robotics system when it was first released. I decided pretty early on that I liked teaching in general, and I had great role models in my family. In high school, I taught photography, programming, and robotics at summer camps. I also volunteered at our local library and taught a couple of Saturday and summer programs for kids interested in joining a FIRST Lego League team. Originally, I thought I would teach third or fourth graders. Then in college, I realized that I wanted to teach at a higher level and that really set me on my career path. I wanted to teach college-level students how to program and use computers to benefit the world and have fun with computing the way that I do. I went to graduate school for my Ph.D., which took a little longer than expected because I was super invested in teaching. My research assistantship was through the MnDRIVE Scholars program, which focused on providing programs on robotics and technology to K-12 students.

My first full-time teaching job was as an adjunct faculty member at Macalester College. Once I had my Ph.D., I got a job at St. Olaf College, which is a liberal arts school. I wanted to teach smaller classes and have teaching be a major component of my job, though research was also a significant component, as a tenure-track faculty member. I was starting to get my research program underway when the pandemic started, and working remotely forced a shift in my research direction. That change required a lot of time to get things back on track, and I was also working to find ways to teach my classes remotely or in a hybrid mode. I learned that my drive and focus was really on teaching and less on research. That prompted me to look for jobs where I could narrow my focus to teaching, which brought me back to the University of Minnesota. This has been a great fit for me. I really get to focus on teaching and get to interact with a lot of other computer science educators all the time. It has been really fun.

What do you enjoy most about teaching? What are your teaching interests?

One of my favorite things about teaching is constantly reviewing and revising what I’m teaching and how I am teaching it. I really enjoy the challenge of trying to come up with different ways to explain topics. I try to catalog which examples worked and didn’t work for certain students and come up with new examples and new ways to present the material to help students understand more easily. I also like coming up with examples that are exercises for students to do during class so they have the chance to interact with the concepts. I like to see when it all comes together. Some students pick up things quickly and it takes others more practice. I like coming up with alternative views for students who are struggling. It is really satisfying to see them reaching that understanding and realizing that they know the answers to their previous questions. It is fun to watch students build that confidence and their knowledge in computer science.

I enjoy teaching systems classes and introductory level classes, like CS-1 and CS-2. I am interested in robotics–designing, building, and writing programs for multi-robot systems. I have also gotten more into the machine architecture and operating systems side of computer science. I am still a beginner in that area, but it is something that I find really interesting and it is something that I can use to improve my work with robots.

What courses are you teaching this spring? What can students expect to get out of that class?

I am teaching CSCI 3061, Introduction to Computer Systems, which is for data science students. It is a combination of CSCI 2021, Machine Architecture and Organization, and CSCI 4061, Operating Systems. The concepts we touch on aim to help data science students understand how to utilize various aspects of a system to organize or interact with data. Students come out of the course with a better understanding of how different parts of the computer hardware play a role in how well a program runs, and how to write more efficient programs. They also learn a bit about writing programs in parallel and networking.

The other class that I’m teaching is CSCI 4511, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence (AI). That class is about the foundations of AI and the methods that were developed as people first started in this field. We look at setting up a problem and going over all the ways to search through possible solution paths. We also look at some game theory, logic, and planning-based algorithms. Towards the end of the semester, we will look at some learning procedures. Coming out of this class, students will understand the history of AI and the different approaches that have been taken in the early years of AI to solve certain problems. They will start to understand how machine learning builds on that foundation but takes a different approach to solve programs.

What do you do outside of the classroom for fun?

I like hanging out with my cats, friends, and family. I still like to build Legos–both robots and stationary builds. I also shoot archery and participate in some of the state tournaments as well as some of the tradition and historical reenactment tournaments in the area. I also like knitting, crochet and weaving, but it’s hard to keep my cats out of my string.

Do you have a favorite spot in the city?

I enjoy going to Saints baseball games and like going to CHS Field. I really love baseball and am part of a vintage baseball league where we play by the original (printed) rules from the 1860s. On campus, I love going to Bona.

Do you have any advice for computer science students?

Build up a capacity for persistence in solving problems and writing programs, but also figure out when you need to take a break. Sometimes you are better off taking a break, rather than trying to figure out the source of a problem for five or six hours in a row. Step away, take a break, and think about something else for a while. You have to build that persistence and go back and work eventually, but taking that break allows your brain to relax and it will be easier for you to see a new approach to solving the problem when you return to it.