News | DOI: 10.1145/1378727.1378735
Wisdom from Randy Pausch
Randy Pausch, author of the best-selling The Last Lecture and
a virtual-world innovator, on computer science, Alice, and teaching.
RANDy PAuSCH WAS known
around the world for the
inspiring “Last Lecture”
he delivered last year—
and for the battle he waged
against terminal pancreatic cancer. To
many people, Pausch, a professor of
computer science at Carnegie Mellon
University, served as a role model for
working hard, overcoming obstacles,
and achieving childhood dreams. Renowned as a passionate and creative
teacher, Pausch won both the Karl V.
Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award
from ACM and the ACM Special Interest
Group on Computer Science Education
Award for Outstanding Contributions to
Computer Science Education in 2007.
Pausch was well known for his role
as the driving force behind the Alice
project, an innovative 3D computing
environment that teaches students to
program through an intuitive graphical
interface. By addressing the challenge
that syntax poses to novice programmers, Pausch opened the discipline to
countless middle school, high school,
and college students. Pausch’s own
students remember his ability to help
computer science come alive in person, making classes on subjects such
as data structures compelling through
well-chosen, motivating examples.
“Randy managed to collect this amazing group of people—some of the best
people I’ve ever worked with,” says former student Caitlin Kelleher.
PHO TOGRAPH B Y BJFIALKOVICH
Last June, we asked Pausch to talk
about what he hoped would be the
legacy of his pioneering work in virtual
reality and to share words of advice to
students pondering a career in computer science. When the news came
of Pausch’s death on July 25, the editors of Communications felt there could
be no greater tribute than to share his
own words about the joy he found in
computer science with a like-minded
audience and his hopes for the future
of the field he cherished.
You’ve spoken of the importance of
never quitting—of continually push-
ing against brick walls and other ob-
stacles. What additional advice might
you give to tomorrow’s CS students?
Remember how quickly our field
changes. That’s why you want to focus
on learning things that don’t change:
how to work well with other people,
how to carefully assess a client’s real—
as opposed to perceived—needs, and
things like that.
What about advice for CS teachers
That it’s time for us to start being
more honest with ourselves about
what our field is and how we should approach teaching it. Personally, I think
that if we had named the field “
Information Engineering” as opposed to
“Computer Science,” we would have
had a better culture for the discipline.
For example, CS departments are notorious for not instilling concepts like
testing and validation the way many
other engineering disciplines do.
Is there anything you wish someone
had told you before you began your
Just that being technically strong is
only one aspect of an education.
Let’s talk about Alice, the 3D programming environment you helped develop
to teach kids how to program. What’s
the most surprising thing you’ve learned
from your work on the Alice project?
That no matter how good a teaching
tool may be, it requires textbooks, lecture notes, and other supportive pedagogic materials before it can really become widely adopted.
Alice has proven phenomenally
successful at teaching young women,
in particular, to program. What else
should we be doing to get more women
engaged in computer science?
Well, it’s important to note that Alice works for both women and men. I
think female-specific “approaches”
can be dangerous for lots of reasons,
but approaches like Alice, which focus on activities like storytelling, work
across gender, age, and cultural background. It’s something very fundamental to want to tell stories. And Caitlin
Kelleher’s dissertation did a fantastic
job of showing just how powerful that
In a course on building virtual
worlds, you required your students to
create content without violence or pornography. Can you tell us a little more
about how you reached that decision,
and what the outcome was?
I just wanted them to do something
new, and shooting violence and pornography were already heavily associated with virtual reality. Although I was
impressed how many 19-year-old boys
are flush out of ideas when you take
those two off the table!
Do you have any predictions for the
future of virtual reality or human-com-
puter interaction (HCI)?
I think virtual reality needs better
base technology; the Wii was a hit because of its input device, for example.
North Carolina researchers got the
tracking technology “good enough”
almost ten years ago, but we are still
waiting for a good, high resolution,
lightweight, head-mounted display,
which I think is critical. As for HCI, it
is my hope that it stops being seen as
a field “just for specialists,” and becomes something—like data structures—where every CS student should
have at least one semester of HCI, just
to understand the basic concepts.
Based in Brooklyn, N Y, Leah hoffmann writes about
science and technology.