Robin Cohen, Professor at the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science, constantly has a massive heap of papers sitting on her office desk. This is most indicative of her near-superhuman workload. First of all, she has a heavy administrative role as director of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University’s new Computer Science/Business Administration Double Degree program. Not only does she manage the everyday operations and the external promotion of the program, she also has to co-ordinate communications with Laurier.
Then comes her teaching, which she finds to be one of the most rewarding parts of her duties as a professor. Robin particularly excels at the graduate level, supervising three master’s students and three PhD students. In fact, she does such an outstanding job of it that she was honoured with the Faculty of Mathematics Award for Distinction in Teaching in 2008 (alongside David McKinnon) and the University of Waterloo Award for Excellence in Graduate Supervision the following year. She often foregoes her weekends to provide her graduate students with extra guidance and feedback on their research, and goes the extra mile to bring them to conferences that better acquaint them with the field.
“I think I gain a lot of reward from working one-on-one with my graduate students and seeing them become successful with their careers, getting a publication, or coming up with a wonderful insight on their thesis,” she says. Robin and her graduate students focus their research mainly in the area of trust modelling in multi-agent systems.
Especially where each “agent” is a user in a social networking setting, it is difficult to assess the trustworthiness of the information provided. Robin determines this quantitatively using a method known as probabilistic reasoning, where past results are used to predict the reliability of the future ones. Specific applications that Robin is examining include: e-commerce, where truthful buyer reviews help others decide whether they should do business with a certain seller, and transportation, where reliable drivers’ reports give users a fair idea of the traffic conditions. Home healthcare is another area where Robin’s work is applied, as caregivers who work from the patients’ home are isolated from other professionals, therefore sometimes rely on advice from peer-based intelligent tutoring systems.
Robin also does a lot of instructing at the undergraduate level. Recently, she has taught "Management Information Systems" (Computer Science (CS) 330) and the "Social Implications of Computing" (CS 492/692), neither of which are overly technical in nature. A far cry from designing programs, these classes demand a lot of reading, critical analysis, and essay writing. Explains Robin, “I have a bit of an arts bent to some of my interests. I actually did my undergraduate degree in mathematics, but it was a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics, so I was able to take more arts courses at the time.”
Courses like CS 492 are slightly outside the comfort zone of some computer science students, but Robin is always impressed by the amount of improvement throughout the course of the term in the quality of students’ writing and in their ability to maintain articulate discussions. Robin enriches her classes with useful, comprehensive feedback on assignments and extensive preparatory work for lessons. “A large part of my role is in just working behind the scenes before the course starts to come up with an interesting set of readings and an interesting set of assignments that will enable the students to learn,” she remarks.
Robin constantly reflects upon her teaching to figure out which aspects are effective and which need to be revamped. “In the Spring, I’m going to be trying a few additional exercises with my class to engage them. I am going to try having the students think through the analysis of our case studies while working in small groups,” she says. “There was a guest speaker here in the fall, who was invited by the Centre for Teaching Excellence, and this was the strategy he had suggested. It will be interesting to see whether this approach leads to an improvement in the skills of the students.”