Lately, there has been a viral video circulating of Troy Vasiga dancing behind a podium at the opening ceremonies of the International Olympiad of Informatics (IOI) 2010, where University of Waterloo played host to the world’s top high school computer scientists. Is Troy quirky? Perhaps. But there is no denying that he earns genuine respect from his students in part because of his quirkiness.
One of the jokes that he was quoted as telling is: "I don't know the difference between backslash and frontslash. I grew up in Disk Operating System (DOS) and moved to Unix, then I was traumatized." While people with computer science backgrounds would probably find this to be hilarious, the rest of us might just pretend to get the joke and force ourselves to laugh along. At the risk of alienating non-computer scientists, Troy thinks that’s the whole point. “If people are paying attention to try and listen to a joke, then (a) that’s good because they’re paying attention, (b) if you understand a concept, you can understand a joke, and (c) a joke is something that you’ll remember,” he says. If he were teaching an introductory class, of course, he’d contextualize a little more with non-technical analogies that the students could appreciate.
Troy, although still very young, achieved a career milestone in 2009, when he won the Faculty of Mathematics Award for Distinction in Teaching (alongside the Dean of Mathematics, Ian Goulden). His key to teaching success is maintaining an ongoing dialogue of student questions and detailed instructor responses. He explains, “I try to get students to think about questions that would help them understand and extend the course material and I also try to tailor my lectures so that I answer some of those questions.”
Being able to extend the course material is contingent upon whether the instructor knows the subject well enough to delve into other potentially related areas. Troy believes this extension to be very important, as students need to find the material relevant in order to recognize the value of learning it. Therefore, he often reads up on other disciplines – such as biology, physics, or even English literature – as part of his preparatory work for teaching a course.
Troy’s favourite part about teaching is seeing students understand the material, and most good instructors would agree. Therefore, in the event that his students are struggling, he wouldn’t merely say ‘tough luck!’ and let them continue to slide. Troy finds it especially disheartening when students fail, because the nature of the courses he teaches tends to be that without understanding the fundamental principles from the beginning of the course, it is impossible to succeed later on. Troy’s strategy would be to return to basics and persistently drill the concepts into his students’ heads. “I would probably create a few review sessions or at least have some review assignments to get everybody up to speed, saying: ‘You should get perfect on this question. If you can’t get perfect, do it again!’” he says.
Another career highlight for Troy was serving as chair of the operations committee of the aforementioned IOI 2010. “I had to set up 400 identical personal computers in the Physical Activities Complex (PAC) after exams ended on Thursday and have it networked and running by Sunday afternoon. There were technical aspects to worry about, then there was the actual contest. I had to manage the organization of food, accommodations, travel, getting them to and from the airport…” he recalls of overseeing the 83 country, 700 person event.
All his hard work in putting together the IOI paid off in the end. Aside from providing him with the occasion to show off his dance moves to the world, Troy thinks the event benefited the university greatly. “I think Waterloo hosting the event exposed the top students to what Waterloo is – the infrastructure, the students, the facilities, the machines, and the faculty,” he says. He is also happy that Waterloo was able to assert itself as an international university, which increases its appeal to prospective students from abroad. Computer science faculty members cemented this when they conducted seminars for the visitors in their native languages, which included English, French, Russian, and Arabic.
In terms of the actual competition, Belarus’s Gennady Korotkevich (also known as Henadzi Karatkevich) took the crown. He was a heavy favourite to finish first, as he had won the IOI 2009 and is famed as a programming prodigy in the computer science circles. Having previously coached the Canadian team, Troy was extremely impressed by the performance of our country’s representatives in 2010. He says, “We have a student, Robin Cheng, who finished sixth, which is not bad at all. That’s one of the highest finishes we’ve had for a Canadian in years!”