Zachary Butler

Zachary Butler Headshot

Zachary Butler is an Associate Professor in the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences. This month, he shares with us how he sees teaching as a puzzle—one in which he is trying to figure out the best way to help each student understand a concept. “I encourage all my students to tell me if they don’t understand something, because I want them to know I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure everyone gets it.” Read his answers to a few critical questions here:

1. How Do You Teach Applied Critical Thinking?

In computer science we deal with many different algorithms to solve different problems, but it is very important to understand which algorithm is appropriate for a given problem. For example, in my Intelligent Systems course, I often give my students a real-world problem and ask what algorithm they would use to solve it, and how it would be applied. In my robotics course, we discuss how each algorithm would perform in the real world and what sort of failures we would expect in different situations.

2. Why Do You Think Applied Critical Thinking is Important in Your Domain?

Often, we can write a program and observe that it works, at least in certain cases. But we should also know why it works – whether we can formally prove its correctness or not, we need to understand its strengths and its limitations. For example, while many machine learning algorithms can make recommendations or predictions from past behavior, some of these can explain in detail where the predictions come from, while others are more of a “black box.” Depending on the application, we may be happy with the black box, or require that the algorithm can explain itself. It is important for us to understand what sort of situation we are in, and what expectations we can and should have of our software.

3. Can You Share a Story Where Quality Applied Critical Thinking Was Key to Your Success?

Several years ago, I was talking to my department chair at the time, Paul Tymann, about my career and research.  He thoughtfully suggested that I consider applying my background in puzzles to a more formal approach to computer science education research. After some time, reading, and thought of my own, I came up with some approaches that led to successful grant proposals and some encouraging results. In actuality, this is at least as much a testament to Paul’s critical thinking as my own, and I am very thankful for it!

4. How Do You Use Critical Thinking in Other Areas of Your Life Outside of RIT?

Outside of RIT, I am most occupied as a puzzle solver and constructor. As a constructor, my job is not just to make a puzzle, but to make one that appeals to solvers. A good puzzle should have a clear underlying logic (even if it is not obvious at first), and meet the solvers’ expectations (or subvert them in satisfying ways). I try to put myself in my solvers’ shoes and think about the puzzle from both points of view as I construct it, testing and revising for correctness as well as for fulfilling results. 

5. Any Last Critical Thoughts?

I am continually impressed with our students and their thoughtfulness and willingness to ask questions. They are not just interested in the nuts and bolts of the techniques, but want to explore opportunities, truly understand the approaches, and figure out how to use them to solve new problems.