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Annabelle Theobald

Busy Beaver Awards go to Bernd Finkbeiner and Michael Schwarz

Saar University students honor CISPA researchers for their teaching

Students have honored CISPA researchers Professor Bernd Finkbeiner and Dr. Michael Schwarz with the "Busy Beaver Award" for their special commitment to teaching in the winter semester 2020/21. Every semester, the Computer Science Student Council of Saarland University awards the prize to the lectures and seminars that have been rated outstandingly well by the students. Last year, the award ceremony was canceled due to the Corona crisis.

Professor Bernd Finkbeiner was thus honored for the second time in the "Basic Lectures" category for his course "Programming 1". "I am passionate about computer science - I am inspired by the methodological diversity, the social significance, and the mathematical precision and aesthetics of computer science. The "Programming 1" lecture is an introduction to this great subject. If through such an award, I witness that my lectures resonate and that the same passion for the subject grows in the students, then it gives me the greatest pleasure."

Dr. Michael Schwarz's course "Side-Channel Attacks and Defenses" celebrated a double premiere, winning the Busy Beaver Award in the Stem Lecture/Advanced Lecture category. For the Austrian, who - before coming to CISPA in 2020 - researched and taught at TU Graz, it was the first lecture in Saarbrücken. The event concept was also completely new, he said. "In addition to the lecture part, the course also consists of three practical exercises with an automated test system that gives students continuous feedback on the solutions they submit. Furthermore, there is a bonus example in capture-the-flag style for each lecture unit, so that you can get to grips with the topic even better," explains Schwarz. To further increase motivation, the best performers received prizes. "I'm pleased that this concept was also well received by the participants, and the Busy Beaver Award is also a kind of confirmation of that."

Both researchers feel strongly about their commitment to teaching. "I consider students to be early career researchers. So it's important to expose them to research topics while they're still in undergraduate school, and to get them interested in research," Schwarz says. He comes into contact with students early on through teaching and can also involve them in his research as part of projects such as bachelor's and master's theses. In addition, the Austrian considers it essential to pass on current research results in this way. "It doesn't help research much if only a small group of researchers knows the results, and current knowledge doesn't flow into education." Finkbeiner says he learns a lot himself with each lecture. "That's because you have to work hard to separate the important from the unimportant, you have to get to the heart of things, and you have to face critical questions." Teaching, he says, is the best opportunity to get students interested in his research. "It's not uncommon for contact in lectures to lead to active involvement in research as a student assistant, in a bachelor's or master's thesis, or as part of a doctorate."

The Corona pandemic presented Schwarz and Finkbeiner with new challenges. "Like almost all courses during the Corona period, our lecture was completely virtual. We were very worried in advance that this would result in a loss of personal contact in the lecture and tutorials, and among students in general," says Finkbeiner. For instructors, too, teaching in a virtual space is different from being on campus. "In a lecture hall, I can tell if attention is waning; in a YouTube stream, I can't see that," Schwarz says. But an online lecture offers technical possibilities that can't be implemented in a lecture hall, he adds. "For example, I can move directly in the slides via a green screen to point to certain things there." In addition, he says, it is a great advantage for students to be able to watch complicated lecture sections repeatedly online. Bernd Finkbeiner also countered the adversity of the pandemic with a sophisticated infrastructure. "The lecture was live-streamed. Questions asked during the lecture were answered immediately in the video or via chat. This was accompanied by polls and quizzes in the style of 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?'"  Outside of the lecture, there was also the possibility at any time to meet on an online platform via video, to discuss with the tutors, and to work together on exercises, explains Finkbeiner. "The students were great about participating, and we noticed that this also works really well online."

The text was translated by: Oliver Schedler