TITLE: SIGCSE Day 1: Keynote Talk by Rich Pattis AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 02, 2006 6:36 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I've been lucky in my years as a computer science professor to get to know some great teachers. Some folks embody the idea of the teacher-scholar. They are able computer scientists -- in some cases, much more than that -- but they have devoted their careers to computer science education. They care deeply about students and how they learn. My good fortune to have met many of these folks and learned from them is dwarfed by the greater fortune to have become acquaintances and, in some cases, their friends. Rich Pattis One of my favorite computer science educators, Rich Pattis, is receiving the SIGCSE Award Winner for Outstanding Contributions for CS Education at the 2006 conference -- this morning, as I type. I can't think of many people who deserve this award as much as Rich. His seminal contribution to the CS education is Karel The Robot, a microworld for learning basic programming concepts, and the book Karel the Robot: A Gentle Introduction to The Art of Programming, which has been updated over the years and extended to C++ and Java. But Rich's contributions have continued steadily since then, and he has been in the vanguard of all the major developments in CS education since. Check him out in the ACM Digital Library. Rich titled his acceptance talk "Can't Sing, Can't Act, Can Dance a Little (On Choosing the Right Dance Partners)", a reference to a famous remark about Fred Astaire and how Ginger Rogers "gave him class". The talk is a trace of Rich's computing history through the people who helped him become the teacher he is, from high school until today. Rich found photos of most of these folks, famous and obscure, and told a series of anecdotes to illustrate his journey. Those who know Rich wouldn't be surprised that he began his talk with a list of books that have influenced him. Rich reads voraciously on all topics that even tangentially relate to computing and technology in the world, and he loves to share the book ideas with other folks. Rich said, "I get all of my best ideas these days from Owen Astrachan", and one particular idea is Owen's practice of giving book awards to students in his courses. Owen doesn't select winners based on grades but on who has contributed the most to the class. Rich decided to reinstate this idea here at SIGCSE by arranging for all conference attendees to receive his all-time favorite book, Programmers at Work by Susan Lammers. I've not read this book but have long wanted to read it, but it's been out of print. (Thanks, Rich, and Susan, and Jane Prey and Microsoft, for the giveaway!) He also recommended Out of their Minds, by Dennis Shasha, which has long been on my to-read list. It just received a promotion. Throughout the talk, Rich came back to Karel repeatedly, just as his career has crossed paths with it many time. Rich wrote Karel instead of writing his dissertation, under John Hennessy, now president of Stanford. Karel was third book published in TeX. (We all know the first.) Karel has been used a lot at Stanford over the years, and Rich demoed a couple of projects written by students that had won course programming contests there, including a "17 Queens" puzzle and a robot that launched fireworks. Finally, Rich showed a photo of a t-shirt given him by Eric Roberts, which had a cartoon picture with the caption "Two wrongs don't make a right, but three lefts do." If you know Karel, you'll get the joke. The anecdotes flew fast in the talk, so I wasn't able to record them all. A few stuck with me. Rich told about one of the lessons he remembers from high school. He went to class to take a test, but his mechanical pencil broke early in the period. He asked Mr. Lill, his teacher, if he could borrow a pencil. Mr. Lill said 'no'. May I borrow a pencil from another student? Again, 'no'. "Mr. Pattis, you need to come to class prepared." This reminded me of Dr. Brown, my assembly language and software engineering prof in college, who did not accept late work. Period. The computer lab lost power, so you couldn't run your card deck? The university's only mainframe printer broke? "Not my problem," he'd say. The world goes on, and you need to work with the assumption that computers will occasionally fail you. I never hated Dr. Brown, even for a short while, as Rich said he did Mr. Lill for a while. But I fully understood Rich when he finished this anecdote with the adage, "Learning not accompanied by pain will be forgotten." Rich praised Computer Science, Logo Style, a three-book series by Brian Harvey as the best introduction to programming ever written. Wow. Not surprisingly, some of the Rich's best anecdotes related to students. He likes to ask an exam question on the fact that there are many different infinities. (An infinite number?) Once, he asked students, "Why are their more mathematical functions than computer programs?" One student answered, "Because mathematicians work harder than computer scientists." (Get to work, folks...) My favorite of Rich's student anecdotes was a comment a student wrote on a course evaluation form. The comment was labeled A Relevant Allegory:
In order to teach someone to boil water, he would first spend a day giving the history of pots, including size, shape, and what metals work best. The next day he'd lecture on the chemical properties of water. On day three, he'd talk about boiled water through the ages. That night, he'd tell people to go home and use boiled water to make spaghetti carbonera. But never once would he tell you to put the water in the pot and heat it. That's what his programming classes are like -- completely irrelevant to the task at hand."
Rather than summarize Rich's comments, I'll quote him, too, from a course syllabus in which he quoted the student:
I like this comment because it is witty, well-written, and true -- although maybe not in the extreme that the author states. Teaching students to boil water is great for a high school class, but in college we are trying to achieve something deeper... I acknowledge that learning from first principles is tougher than memorization, and that sometimes students feel that the material covered is not "applied".
Eventually, Rich's dance-partner history reached the "SIGSCE years". He showed two slides of pictures. The first showed a first generation of folks from SIGCSE who have become a long-term cadre that shares ideas about computer science, teaching, books, and life. The second showed later influences on Rich from among the usuals at SIGCSE. I was a bit surprised and highly honored to see my own picture up on Slide 1! I recall first meeting Rich at SIGCSE back in 1994 or so, when we began a long dialogue on teaching OOP and C++ in CS1. I was pretty honored even then that he engaged me in this serious conversation, and impressed by the breadth of the ideas he had collected and cultivated. Rich ended his talk with a tribute to one of his favorite films, The Paper Chase. Long-time readers of Knowing and Doing may recall that I wrote a blog entry that played off my own love for this movie (and Dr. Brown!). Rich said that this movie has "more truths per scene" about teaching than any other movie he knows. As much as he loves "The Paper Chase", Rich admitted to feeling like a split personality, torn between the top-down intellectual tour déforce of Professor Kingsfield and the romantic, passionate, bottom-up, "beat" style of Dead Poets Society's John Keating. Dead Poets Society Kingsfield and Keating occupy opposite ends of the teaching spectrum, yet both inspire a tremendous commitment to learning in their students. Like many of us who teach, Rich resonates with both of these personalities. Also like many of us, he knows that it's hard to be both. He likes to watch "Dead Poets Society" each year as a way to remind him of how his students must feel as they move on to the wide open wonder of the university. Yes, we know that "Dead Poets Society" is about high school. But, hey, "The Paper Chase" is about law school. You should watch both, if you haven't already. Rich closed with a video clip from "The Paper Chase", a famous scene in which Professor Kingsfield introduces his class to the Socratic method. (The clip is 10.4 Mb, and even still not of the highest quality.) This was an inspirational close to an inspirational talk, from a CS educator's CS educator, a guy who has been asking questions and trying to get better as a teacher for over twenty years -- learning from his dance partners and sharing what he has created. A great way to start a SIGCSE. Congratulations, Rich. (UPDATE March 4: I have posted a link to the video clip from "The Paper Chase" that Rich showed. He has said that he will post his presentation slides to the web; I'll watch for them, too.) -----