Emphasizing Student Engagement, Schreib Honored with Two Teaching Excellence Awards

CS Assistant Teaching Professor recognized by her students as an outstanding teacher

Rebecca Schreib

Rebecca Schreib, Assistant Teaching Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Computer Science, received the Nicholas Salgo Outstanding Teaching Award and Phi Beta Kappa’s Sophia Meyer Farb Prize for Teaching on April 23 at the Center for Teaching Excellence’s University Awards Ceremony and Reception at McMurtry Auditorium.

The Nicolas Salgo Outstanding Teaching Award is Rice’s oldest teaching award; created in 1966, the award is funded by the Salgo-Noren Foundation. Voting is open to the junior and senior classes to select one outstanding faculty member from across the university.

The Rice chapter (Beta of Texas) of the national Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society honors top-rated, early-career faculty across the university for outstanding teaching performance with the Sophia Meyer Farb Prize for Teaching. An ad hoc committee selects the winner after a review of eligible faculty’s numerical teaching and course evaluations for the past two years as well as their scores across a variety of courses.

Computer science faculty member John Greiner, who has been teaching at Rice for more than twenty years and served as the chair of the Sophia Meyer Farb Prize committee, said that there were several things that impressed the committee about Schreib. She has been receiving “these excellent evaluations while teaching mostly very large, very challenging courses. She taught a variety of courses, not only the large-scale technical courses, but also smaller courses on teaching and technical presentation. Student reviews routinely described her as one of the best instructors at Rice or in the department, very approachable, and always available for questions.”

Chris Jermaine, Chair of the Department of Computer Science, was not surprised by Schreib’s double honor. "The most singular characteristic of Rebecca's teaching is her dedication,” he said. “I'm not sure anyone on campus puts in more effort, and her students revere her for it." 

Schreib's response to learning she’d won the two awards was gratitude and excitement. “I know how much teaching is valued at Rice, and there are so many excellent teachers here, so to even be considered for these awards is a huge honor,” she said. 

"I'm especially grateful to all of the students that I've taught in the past several years. Whether directly (by voting for the Salgo award) or indirectly (by taking the time to write a positive course evaluation), they all played a role in helping to recognize me with these awards,” she noted. “It’s so exciting to receive this kind of validation that my teaching is having a positive impact on my students!”

Schreib has been an Assistant Teaching Professor of Computer Science since she completed her Ph.D. in Computer Science at Rice in 2019; in 2023, she was appointed as Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Computer Science. She is currently teaching Intro to Program Design (COMP 215) and Pedagogy for Computer Science (COMP 691) and has taught Computational Thinking (COMP 140), Programming for Data Sciences (COMP 614), and Practicum in College Teaching (UNIV 502).  She also currently serves as a Major Advisor and Transfer Credit Advisor for Computer Science, and on the University-level, she serves as a Divisional Advisor and Faculty Associate for Wiess College and Faculty Advisor for RemixCS and RiceApps.

A big part of why Schreib was drawn to teaching is that she has “always had a deep appreciation for learning and the impact it can have on us as humans. Learning has the power to fundamentally change how we view the world, how we approach problems, how we interact with others. It helps shape our paths through life and make us into better people.” 

And she speaks so eloquently and passionately about the field of computer science that a listener almost immediately understands why she is regarded as a great teacher. “I love that [computer science] is a field that so seamlessly blends logical thinking and creative thinking,” she said. “At the end of the day, computers operate in terms of pure logic, and yet we humans are trying to use them to solve these complex, messy, real-world problems. The bigger the problem, the more different ways there are to solve it, so the first step is always to just brainstorm different solutions. And then it becomes this puzzle of trying to weigh the pros and cons of each possible solution, decide which one is the best, and then convey that solution in logical a way that a computer can understand.”

Her approach to teaching is very student-centered, with an emphasis on flipped classrooms, active learning, and interactive, real-world exercises that focus on fundamental problem-solving skills. “Most of the courses that I teach focus on building skills — things like problem-solving, programming, design, and most recently teaching,” Schreib said. “I believe that these skills are best developed through hands-on practice.”

The hands-on practice Schreib has devised for her various classes utilizes her doctoral research on designing tools and techniques to provide personalized and interactive learning experiences within large introductory computer science courses.  She has created and developed six educational tools that have all been deployed in various Rice CS classes. For example, she created MemStep for her Intro to Program Design (COMP 215) course, which enables students to interactively step through an arbitrary program and produce the state of the stack and the heap corresponding to that program. EvOwl is a tool that leverages peer and self code review to help students learn best program design practices and facilitate the grading of program design in large classes. It was deployed in a colleague’s course, Concurrent Program Design (COMP 318). Testception generates interactive exercises for teaching novice students how to develop comprehensive test suites using a combination of black-box and white-box testing, which she deployed in Computational Thinking (COMP 140).

Schreib is excited about the upcoming curriculum changes she has helped institute as the Director of the Computer Science Undergraduate Program. Those changes include three new course offerings: Concurrent Program Design (COMP 318) was offered for the first time in fall 2023, Intro to Computer Organization (COMP 222) will be offered in fall 2024, and the third class, which Schreib will be responsible for, will debut in the spring 2025 semester. 

“Intro to Programming Languages (COMP 312) will approach the topic from a user’s perspective,” she said. “It will explore the design landscape of programming languages and compilers with the goal of enabling students to evaluate tradeoffs between different programming languages, choose the language that is best-suited to a given task, and learn new programming languages more quickly and easily.” And because the flipped classroom model that Schreib prefers won’t really work for this course, she will be spending a good deal of her time figuring out how to make the course engaging and interactive.

She pointed out that the explosion in student enrollment has posed a lot of very interesting challenges: “How can we create classroom experiences that are interactive and engaging when we have hundreds of students? How can we ensure that all those students can get the support that they need in order to learn? And how can we leverage technology to help address all these challenges? I love the field of CS education because it creates opportunities for me to use my own CS skills to build software that will help my students to learn CS skills.”

She is also looking forward to serving as a mentor again for the twelve-week Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (“SURF”) hosted by Rice’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (OURI). SURF is a program for undergraduates from under-resourced backgrounds who are interested in pursuing supervised research with a Rice faculty member over the summer. She will have four undergraduates research assistants: one will help her with an extension of the MemStep tool, another will assist with an extension of the EvOwl tool, a third student will help her with an old project she wants to revive, and the fourth student will help her with a completely new project.

It's no wonder that Schreib considers finding enough time to do everything her greatest teaching challenge is. Her greatest joy is the connection with students: understanding what confuses them and devising ways for them to grasp the material. “I personally have never found anything else to be nearly as rewarding as helping others to learn. I particularly enjoy the relational aspect of it — trying to connect with my students, to understand their perspectives, to find the example or explanation that best resonates with them. And over time, gradually becoming someone that they can turn to for advice and mentorship as well.”

Clearly, many Rice students have already realized that Schreib wants to help them learn and thrive — her two teaching awards are evidence of that.


Laurie Lynn Drummond, Contributing Writer