Péraire Advances Software Engineering Field Through Education, Research and Service

When the acceptance emails went out for the 2019 International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE), Carnegie Mellon University’s Cécile Péraire received two. As one of the most competitive conferences in the field, ICSE hosts a highly selective application process, and the authors chosen represent a team of researchers who have made some of the most significant contributions in the field of software engineering.

Péraire accomplished something even more remarkable: each paper had been accepted to a separate track. One paper, about a novel course she had designed and implemented at Carnegie Mellon’s Silicon Valley Campus , was accepted to the Software Engineering Education and Training track. The other explored the intersection of software engineering and human computer interaction and was accepted to the Technical Track.

While this achievement celebrated her mastery of both specializations, Péraire, an associate teaching professor in electrical and computer engineering , has been working at the intersection of teaching and research for more than 15 years. Since starting at CMU in 2012, Péraire has received both the CMU College of Engineering Dean’s Early Career Fellowship Award and the Philip L. Dowd Fellowship Award and her passion and dedication have proven invaluable to the field.

Although her success in both sectors suggests a lifelong commitment, Péraire said that this wasn’t always the case.

"I remember teaching classes to my dolls as a kid, but a career in education was never part of the plan. Instead, my goal was to work in industry," she said. It wasn’t until she began working at Rational Software and IBM that she truly discovered her passion for teaching.

During one of her positions, Péraire was tasked with improving the development processes of a few Silicon Valley software companies. Part of this improvement included teaching and mentoring, and she quickly fell in love with the prospect of teaching skills that students would immediately put to use.

"The beauty of teaching in industry," she said, "is the satisfaction of witnessing students apply their newly acquired knowledge right after class in the context of real-word projects." The experience motivated her to join CMU as a faculty member.

As she continued to work with students, she began to notice a gap in software engineering education: students were mostly educated in the fundamentals of computer science with only very limited exposure to software engineering - and therefore had little practice developing real life software systems in teams. Péraire experienced this in her own education, citing her time in industry as the only real exposure to the field of software engineering.

In 2013, she joined forces with Professors Hakan Erdogmus and Jia Zhang and created a world-class master’s degree program in software engineering (MS-SE) offered by CMU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering out of the Silicon Valley campus. After pouring thousands of hours into its creation, the program was launched in 2014 with 33 students. Five years later, there are now about 140 students selected from an ever-growing pool of applicants from around the world.

Dedicated to the field of software engineering, the program was designed with Silicon Valley in mind.

"The mission of the MS-SE program is to prepare students for software engineering careers specifically within Silicon Valley," Péraire said. To ensure that the students meet the demands of their future employers, Péraire interviewed software engineering practitioners to identify the skills they wanted employees to have. The findings translated into learning objectives and topics that were then packaged into eight brand-new software engineering courses forming the core of the program.

Her ingenuity carries into the classroom as well, where she utilizes a flipped classroom teaching style. Compared to a traditional lecture delivery, Péraire argues that the flipped style allows the faculty to focus their attention away from themselves and instead toward their students. Rather than asking "How effectively am I delivering new content to students during lectures’," she is able to ask "How effectively do students understand and apply the new content during class activities?" In doing so, she is able to work more dynamically with them, altering lessons as necessary to ensure that every student walks away with a strong understanding of the fundamental principles underlying the majority of the tech industry.

"Most people can code," she said. "Even Kindergarteners." Her goal is to move her students beyond coding basics and to help them become software engineers able to design, build and gracefully evolve software systems while still remembering to work closely with users and to seriously consider the social impact of their creations.

While teaching is her first priority, Péraire also manages a number of research and outreach programs. In addition to leading the charge on creating a truly supportive MS-SE alumni network, she frequently writes for SE-edu.org, an online forum dedicated to assisting the educators of next generation software engineers. Additionally, she has co-organized and facilitated workshops on software engineering education for ICSE, establishing discussions that focus on the needs and challenges of teaching software engineering in higher education. By making the workshops highly interactive, she said she hopes to create a space for educators to meet with and learn from each other.

Through her genuine passion for software engineering and education, Péraire showcases just how influential CMU faculty can be in supporting excellence in teaching, research and service.

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