TITLE: SIGCSE Day 1 -- Randy Pausch and Alice AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 14, 2008 10:55 AM DESC: ----- BODY:

[A transcript of the SIGCSE 2008 conference: Table of Contents]

Last September, the CS education community was abuzz with the sad news that Randy Pausch, creator of the Alice programming environment, had suffered a recurrence of his cancer and that his condition was terminal. Pausch approached his condition directly and with verve, delivering a last lecture that became an Internet phenomenon. Just google "lecture"; as of today, Pausch's is the second link returned. Because Pausch, his team, and Alice have had such an effect on the CS education community, and not just the virtual reality community in which they started, the folks at SIGCSE gambled that his health would hold out long enough for him to accept the SIG's 2008 Award for Outstanding Contribution to Computer Science Education in person and deliver a plenary address. Alas, it did not. Pausch is relatively well but unable to travel cross country. In his stead, Dennis Cosgrove, lead project scientist on the Alice project, and Wanda Dann, one of the curriculum development leads on the project, gave a talk on the history of Pausch's work and on what's next with Alice 3.0. The theme of the talk was building bridges, from virtual reality research to cognitive psychology and then to the fine arts, and a parallel path to CS education. I admire Cosgrove and Dann for taking on this task. It is impossible to top Pausch's now-famous last lecture, which nearly everyone has seen by now. (If you have not yet, you should. It's an inspiring 104 minutes.) I'll let the video speak for Pausch and only report some of the highlights from Cosgrove and Dann. Pausch's work began like so many new assistant professors' work does: on the cheap. He wanted to start a virtual reality lab but didn't have the money to "do it right". So he launched a quest to do "VR on $5 a day". Alice itself began as a rapid prototyping language for VR systems and new interaction techniques. As his lab grew, Pausch realized that to do first-class VR, he needed to get into perceptual research, to learn how better to shape the user's experience. This was the first bridge he built, to cognitive psychology. The unexpected big lesson that he learned was this: What you program is not what people see. I think the teacher in all of us recognizes this phenomenon. Next came an internship at Disney Imagineering, a lifelong dream of his. There, he saw the power of getting artists and engineers to work together, not just in parallel on the same project. One of the big lessons he learned was that it's not easy to do. Someone has to work actively to keep artists and engineers working together, or they will separate into their own element. But the benefits of the collaboration are worth the work. Upon his return to CMU, he designed a course called Building Virtual Worlds that became a campus phenomenon. Students came to view building their worlds as a performing art -- not from the perspective of the "user", but thinking about how an audience would respond. I think this shows that computer science students are more than just techies, and that placed in the right conditions will respond with a much broader set of interests and behaviors. In the last phase of his work, Pausch has been working more in CS education than in VR. In his notes on this talk, he wrote, "Our quest (which we did not even realize in the beginning) was to revolutionize the way computer programming is taught." So often, we start with one goal in mind and make discoveries elsewhere. Sometimes we get lost, and sometimes we just wander in an unexpected direction. I think many folks in CS education first viewed Alice as a way to teach non-majors, but increasingly folks realize that it may have a profound effect on how we teach -- and recruit -- majors. I was glad to be pointed in the direction of Pausch's student Caitlin Kelleher, whose PhD dissertation, "Motivating Programming: Using Storytelling to Make Computer Programming Attractive to Middle School Girls" is of great interest to me. (And not just as father to two girls!) Cosgrove wrapped up his talk with a cartoon that seems to express Pausch's Think Big outlook on life. I won't try to show you the image (who needs another pre-cease-and-desist message from the same artist?), but will describe it: Two spiders have built a web across the bottom of the playground slide. One turns to the other and says, "If we pull this off, we will eat like kings." Pausch and his team have been weaving a web of Alice, and we may well reap big benefits. Pausch's career teaches us one more thing. To accomplish big things, you need both a strong research result, in order to convince folks your idea might work, and you need strong personal connections, in order that funders will be able to trust you with their money and resources. Thanks, Randy. -----