Carnegie Mellon University
March 12, 2020

Raja Sooriamurthi Wins Dietrich College’s Elliott Dunlap Smith Award

By Stefanie Johndrow

Stefanie Johndrow
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-1788

Raja Sooriamurthi, teaching professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Information Systems Program (IS), has won the 2019-20 Elliott Dunlap Smith Award for Distinguished Teaching and Educational Service in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“Dietrich College has a rich heritage of being home to so many distinguished educators. It is an honor to be selected for this award,” Sooriamurthi said. “Carnegie Mellon is an amazing place for many reasons, one of the main being our wonderful students. I learn so much from them as I hope they do from me. I tell my students that one cannot put a price on job satisfaction. While I’m privileged to do what I love, it is nice to get an acknowledgement now and then that one is making a difference.”

Sooriamurthi’s teaching and research areas include artificial intelligence and cognitive science with an emphasis on case-based reasoning and data science, as well as higher order programming languages, software development, computer science and information systems pedagogy. Along with colleagues at the University of Adelaide and Baldwin Wallace University, Sooriamurthi has explored a novel approach to teaching creative problem-solving termed “puzzle-based learning.” Sooriamurthi has written numerous papers on the topic. One of which, “Puzzle-Based Learning: An Introduction to Critical Thinking and Problem Solving” (Michalewicz, Falkner, Sooriamurthi 2010), was a finalist for the 2010 Decision Science Institute’s Instructional Innovation Award Competition. Their pedagogical approach and experience have been discussed in detail in their book “Guide to Teaching Puzzle-based Learning” (Springer 2014).


In their nomination letter, IS seniors Mahima Arya, Jarrek Holmes, Surya Singla and Sasha Volodin noted Sooriamurthi’s “proven dedication to student learning and his academic contributions throughout his career.” They went on to describe his teaching methods and ability to bolster confidence in students, regardless of their skill level, by making complex topics easier to understand.

“Professor Raja’s impact on students is not just limited to the semester they take the course, but lasts long after the final exam is over. He structured the class in a way that would have the most impact on students preparing for future courses and careers related to technology. The homework assignments involve the analysis of real datasets similar to what organizations use today, such as a dataset on customer usage of the Healthy Ride bike share service in Pittsburgh,” they wrote. “His commitment to his students is also evident through his efforts to connect with each student, even in a class of around 90 people.”

“It’s noteworthy that this nomination was completely student-driven, a true grassroots effort.  This speaks volumes about the impact that Raja has had, and the esteem he holds with his students,” said Joseph E. Devine, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the Dietrich College.

Sooriamurthi, who serves on the board of directors of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at CMU, has also been active in various outreach efforts over the past 20 years. Most recently, for the past five years — along with partners in the industry and at University of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center — he has co-organized a well-received multi-month data science outreach program for local high school students called Data Jam.

Sooriamurthi also offers a summer course on data science as part of the Public Policy and International Affairs Program (PPIA) Junior Summer Institute (JSI) hosted annually at the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy.  

“From the minute I stepped into his classroom, Professor Raja opened up a whole new world. I had been limiting myself by shutting myself off to what computer science really had to offer. In his classroom over those seven weeks, I received lessons that challenged the status quo on what policy could be. In short, he taught me the power of interdisciplinary thinking. I would never have expected computer science to become a part of my life and my future, but now I actively pursue it. The world I see no longer looks the same and I have him to thank for that,” wrote PPIA-JSI participant Shannon Dutchie.

Sooriamurthi also teaches for Heinz College where he received the Martcia Wade Teaching Award in 2018.  An annual honor recognizing excellence in teaching, Sooriamurthi was praised for his “unmatched energy, intellectualism and dedication to student learning.” As one of his students noted in their nomination then, “Professor Raja is someone who quickly becomes a role model for students due to his intellect, teaching styles, humility and honest concerns about students' well-being.”

In their nomination letters, students who have taken classes with Sooriamurthi — both undergraduate and graduate — noted that his impact goes beyond the classroom.

“Personally, Professor Raja has given me a lot of support not only in his courses but also guidance for career choice and life directions. As one of the worst performers in his class, Professor Raja helped me to rebuild my confidence in coding and changed my mindset from ‘wanting to complete a course and getting credits’ to ‘what and how I could learn from this course,’” wrote graduate student Huan Chen.

“Professor Raja has inspired me to not just follow in his footsteps academically but also taught me the values of patience, attentive listening, care and empathy both through his teaching and the way he conducts himself in all situations,” wrote senior Bharath Prabhu.

In 2007, Sooriamurthi joined the Information Systems Program, which is administered by both Dietrich and Heinz colleges. Prior to joining Carnegie Mellon University, Sooriamurthi was a faculty member at the University of West Florida and Indiana University, Bloomington where his pedagogical efforts were also recognized with top awards.

Learn about the EllioTt Dunlap Smith Award including previous winners