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Wisdom from Randy Pausch

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.

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 pushing against brick walls and other obstacles. 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 and professors?

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 own studies?

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 approach is.

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-computer 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.

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Based in Brooklyn, NY, Leah Hoffmann writes about science and technology.

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