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Cognitive Science PhD Student Lakshmi Govindarajan Receives Teaching Award

Four students, who span the disciplines, are recognized for going above and beyond during an academic year unlike any other. An Excellence in Teaching Award was presented to Lakshmi Govindarajan, a doctoral student in Cognitive Science, at the University Awards Ceremony. The award recognizes outstanding pedagogical achievement by a graduate student.

Govindarajan’s dedication to helping students learn is exceptional. He has been a teaching assistant for Introduction to Programming several times, which is a particularly challenging computation-related course for students without a programming background. Govindarajan organized additional review sessions and extended his office hours to provide the support students needed to be successful. By the time they were completing final projects, his students were able to embed complex algorithms within the software they had written, shares Thomas Serre, who is an Associate Professor of Computer Science and Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences and Associate Director of the Center for Computational Brain Science and Director for the Center for Computation and Visualization.

Students continue to reach out to Govindarajan for course selection advice and Serre explains that a handful of students have even joined his lab to further their computational skills with the goal to specifically engage in research with Govindarajan. “Lakshmi is the kind of teacher that influences, motivates, and inspires from the classroom to the laboratory,” says Serre.

He is the person that students go to for advice or when they have a question about literally anything. Some of his fellow graduate classmates have often visited the lab to ask him for help with computational assignments for a course where he was not even enrolled.

A former student shares that Govindarajan “is an accomplished graduate student who sees his role as a teaching assistant as an opportunity to inspire, who doesn’t just teach us how to write a function, but teaches us how to think critically, and serves as a mentor to so many.”

Govindarajan truly enjoys teaching. “Learning to program is like learning to speak in a different language. It's incredibly hard, yet ultimately gratifying. Moreover, if someone is doing this for the first time, it's introducing a new paradigm of thought to them. It gives me joy to go through this journey with students, and see them come out equipped with a major skill,” he says.

For one section of the Introduction to Programming course, Govindarajan created interactive quizzes with themes (such as Star Wars) and refreshed weekly programming assignments, making them engaging and relatable to real-life programming issues. He also imported all weekly assignments into a new web service and was able to help roll out the new platform so that there was not a single bug in the tests and scores were higher than in any previous year.

In working with Serre he has ably assisted in redesigning the curriculum for remote learning, taken the lead on developing two Python modules, as well as helping with the design of novel short algorithmic problems for exams.

Serre also praises his work as a graduate student. “His productivity in the lab has been outstanding and he has a foot in almost every project in the lab.”

Govindarajan’s dissertation topic is at the intersection of machine learning and computational cognitive neuroscience. His research aims to imbue artificially intelligent agents with biologically-inspired neural mechanisms with the hope of imparting cognitive flexibility to machines.

On receiving this award, he shares, “It is an honor. Teaching is something that I hold close to my heart, and try to do justice to. Of course, this award wouldn't have been possible without the support of my graduate advisor, Thomas Serre, and my department.”

Learn more about the other students selected for the 2021 Excellence in Teaching Awards.