April 22, 2020

Exceptional Early Career Teaching Award: Nicole Hands

Note: The profile below is part of Purdue Today's ongoing series on Purdue's winners of the 2020 Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award in Memory of Charles B. Murphy, Exceptional Early Career Award and Excellence in Instruction Award for Continuing Lecturers.

“It’s like an entire beast, but somehow you’ve made it chewable.” Nicole Hands uses that analogy to describe her most fulfilling moments as a teacher. “It feels good because that’s the skill of teaching. It’s when a student is stuck on something and you manage to find a way through lots of different paths to get the difficult idea across and you see it click.”

A clinical assistant professor in computer and information technology at Purdue since 2016, Hands teaches several courses on computer architecture and cybersecurity. Hands is a 2020 recipient of Purdue’s Exceptional Early Career Teaching Award.

Given the computer-centric subject matter she teaches, she believes that the challenge of teaching at a distance during the coronavirus pandemic may not be quite as great for her as it is for Purdue faculty whose curricula rely on physical equipment for hands-on labs. She says, however, that she is taking extra care to be mindful of students’ needs while they’re away from her classroom and learning from home.

“Students need predictability. They need consistency. They need fairness. They need compassion, so I’ve been trying to design all the things that we do in order to give them those things,” she says.

Hands says she first learned about student needs while she taught high school biology and English as a second language at the junior high level. She then earned her master’s in cybersecurity at Purdue to combine her interests in teaching and computers. Since joining Purdue, she has created six courses and redesigned two others.

Hands’ teaching methods are student-centered, driving active inquiry through project-based and hands-on/minds-on learning. She diversifies learning experiences in her courses to address a wide range of student learning styles and needs, and to encourage higher-level thinking and problem solving. Students are also expected to be strong communicators and collaborators, and to engage cooperatively in dynamic groups.

Hands also has devoted a great deal of time and effort to supporting student learning outside the classroom with her involvement as a faculty sponsor of a student cybersecurity club, as well as her annual trips with students to Chicago for a springtime computing conference, a Women in Cybersecurity conference and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. And for three years, Hands also has coached student teams in the U.S. Department of Energy Cyberforce Defense Competition.

Students express gratitude for Hands’ devotion to teaching and to them. On a scale of 1 to 5, they rate her teaching 4.2-4.7 in all categories including creativity, innovation, strong individual help, and ability to motivate them to do their best work.

Hands says the lasting relationships she builds with the students mean a great deal to her.

“Several years ago, I had students working with me and we stayed up all night working on a project together because they were having troubles,” she recalls.

“We just kept going and suddenly I looked outside my window and said, ‘Oh the sun’s rising!’ Those students don’t forget that. One of them is now one of my TAs. There are all sort of good things that come from that extra time and energy that happens outside of the regular classroom stuff.”

Writer: Amy Raley, Raley, araley@purdue.edu

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