The Lasting Legacy

Long before the bestseller, Randy Pausch (CS'88) was leaving his mark on research, teaching, and his friends, colleagues, and students

The Building Virtual Worlds class offered by Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center is as much about teamwork as it is learning the rudiments of virtual reality. Several times during each semester, Randy Pausch, who created the course in 1998, polled students about their interactions with their teammates, and ranked them according to their classmates' opinions.

Pausch once sat down with a particularly uncooperative and self-centered student and told him that he was ranked in the bottom 25 percent of the class.

"Oh, that's not too bad," the student replied.

So Pausch pulled out the chart and showed him the hard evidence: he was ranked dead last out of 50 students.

But, Pausch added, he did have some good news. The young man could become a better listener, keep his ego in check, and improve his standing. Pausch later recalled telling the student: "I'm a recovering jerk. And that gives me the moral authority to tell you that you can be a recovering jerk, too."

It was a blunt life lesson for that student, but one he'll probably never forget. And it was just one of hundreds of life lessons Pausch imparted to Carnegie Mellon students after joining the faculty in 1997.

"Every teacher has students who 'flake out' from time to time," says Randal Bryant, dean of SCS and University Professor of Computer Science. "Most teachers move on. But Randy's reaction was to bring students in and give them direct evidence that they had a problem they needed to work on.

"One of the things I respect Randy for was how willing he was to jump into people's lives and give them advice," Bryant says. "I've spoken with dozens of people who praise Randy for the valuable advice he gave them — He had a way of being pretty blunt with people, and by definition, somebody like that is not always appreciated. But you never had the sense that he was doing it to satisfy his own ego."

Pausch (CS'88), a professor of computer science, human-computer interaction, and design, died July 25 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. His battle began shortly before he told shocked friends and colleagues of his illness in August 2006; it became widely known after he delivered a lecture called "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams" to current and former students, co-workers, and others who packed the McConomy Auditorium at Carnegie Mellon's University Center on Sept. 18, 2007.

Though the talk was witty, informative and by turns touching and funny, Pausch almost didn't deliver it--he'd learned three weeks earlier that despite aggressive treatment, his cancer had spread to his liver and spleen and would surely be fatal. He wasn't sure he wanted to face a crowd with that on his mind. Afterward, Pausch said he didn't consider it one of best lectures; he was prouder of his presentations on time management, and said the "Childhood Dreams" speech was full of clichés.

It was a rare occasion when Pausch's instincts nearly failed him, because there was something remarkable about the 76-minute talk, and articles in Pittsburgh's two daily newspapers and The Wall Street Journal spread the word. Hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of people viewed the lecture on the university's Web site, posted the video to file-sharing services, and sent links to friends. "I don't know of anything else like it in my 35 years in academia," says Dan Siewiorek, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute and Buhl University Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science. "It's amazing how many people passed on that pointer."

Perhaps some of the people who watched were marveling at the novelty of seeing someone describe a serious illness with Pausch's trademark frankness and optimism. But most were moved by the simple truths in his message: Follow your dreams, and help other people achieve theirs. Journal reporter and Carnegie Mellon alumnus Jeffrey Zaslow (HS'80) helped Pausch turn the talk into a book, The Last Lecture. TV appearances with Oprah Winfrey and Diane Sawyer helped make it a bestseller and turned Pausch into an international celebrity. More than four million copies are now in print, and the book has been translated into 36 languages. A memorial service on Sept. 22 in Rangos Hall attracted 400 people and was streamed live to the world on ABC News' Web site.

Some colleagues and former students are concerned that the hoopla has overshadowed Pausch's real legacies as an inspiring teacher, innovative researcher, and valued colleague and friend. Take "Building Virtual Worlds," for instance, which was created by Pausch in 1998 to allow students from across the university to use 3D modeling software, digital video and audio editing tools, and programming libraries to create their own fanciful VR environments. Given strict time limits and thrown into teams with people of wildly different perspectives and skill-sets, a few students crashed and burned. But many others turned out extraordinary work--since the very first year, people have waited in line at the end of each semester to see the best projects.

"The students who went through that course with Randy were changed in amazing ways," says Jessica Hodgins (CS'89), professor of computer science and robotics and a Ph.D. classmate of Pausch's at Carnegie Mellon in the late 1980s. "None of us have a surplus of time, but he made time for people. He was always willing to offer advice and hash through things." Although Pausch's methods and research were sometimes unconventional, Siewiorek says he was effective. Adds Hodgins: "Some people do well in the classroom. Some people do well in a lab. Randy was very good at both."

In addition to the Entertainment Technology Center, which he co-founded in 1998 with Don Marinelli, professor of drama and arts management in the College of Fine Arts, one of Pausch's lasting legacies will be Alice, a software package that teaches the principles of computer programming using a "drop-and-drag" interface that allows students to create their own 3D animations. Version 3 of Alice is being tested this fall with 200 first-year computer science students at Carnegie Mellon and Ithaca College in upstate New York. A beta release is slated for Spring 2009 and will involve an estimated 600 students and 30 faculty members at colleges around the U.S.

A team led by Pausch originally developed Alice as a rapid, inexpensive environment for virtual reality research that could run on inexpensive machines. Wanda Dann, then an associate professor of computer science at Ithaca, saw a demonstration of the program at a conference on human-computer interaction in 1997. At the time, Dann was developing a system for teaching the fundamentals of computer programming in a visual way. "One of the concepts that students struggle to understand is classes versus objects," she says. "The difference between the two is often nebulous. In a text-based programming language, it's all in writing, and many students don't really grasp it--it all looks the same, it's all just words."

Dann's visual system worked in two dimensions, but she recognized that students weren't getting the full sense of how different programming elements interact. She was getting ready to start over, from scratch, when she saw Alice and decided it offered a 3D environment that could be adapted as a teaching tool. Along with Stephen Cooper, an associate professor of computer science at Saint Joseph's University, Dann was introduced to Pausch by a mutual friend, Jacobo Carrasquel, associate teaching professor in the Computer Science Department. "I was only a little bit more than a year out of my Ph.D. program, so I had no reputation and no funding," says Dann, now director of the Alice project and associate teaching professor of computer science in SCS, "but Randy looked at my work carefully and asked us to join his team. He was generous and inspiring."

One of Pausch's former students, Dennis Cosgrove, started working on Alice back in the early 1990s when Pausch was on the faculty at the University of Virginia. Now the lead project scientist on the Alice project at Carnegie Mellon, Cosgrove says no one realized then the software's future was as an educational tool, but that it fills a vital need. Too many students (particularly girls and underrepresented populations) shy away from computer science because the first programming assignments they receive are dull or perform tedious mathematical operations. Or, Cosgrove says, students get frustrated at having to learn the syntax rules of C++ or Python before they can actually write a useful program.

Forcing students to use industrial-strength programming languages for introductory education is "really kind of crazy," says Peter Lee, head of the Computer Science Department. "You wouldn't use a mass spectrometer for introduction to chemistry," he says. Alice is a tool designed to start beginning students in computer programming; it frees newbies from having to learn punctuation and bracket placement and instead allows them to focus on computer science concepts while making them the director, writer, and producer of their own short animated films. Students drag characters into a scene and choose instructions that make them respond to stimuli or various conditions: "If the cow walks forward, then the duck jumps in the air." "If the door is closed, then turn the knob."

Pausch credited Caitlin Kelleher, one of his Ph.D. students, with first realizing that computer programming could be transformed into storytelling. "As it turns out, there are actually a number of things in stories that map themselves onto computing concepts," says Kelleher (CS'06), now an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. Storytelling's universal appeal enables many different age groups to learn programming concepts from Alice, she says. Declaring parameters for the characters in Alice, for example, allows them to perform similar actions in multiple settings and thus introduces students to calls, values, and subroutines.
At first, people had doubts about Alice's value. "I was a big skeptic for a long time," says Lee, who admits that he and Pausch had some "very, very direct" arguments over the project. He suspected students would get caught up in the video-game aspects of Alice and never bother to learn what made their animations work. Then Lee tried it on his then-8-year-old son. "He really got inside the program to see what made things work--he was self-motivated to discover the concepts," Lee says, "and my attitude started to soften when I saw how effective it was."

"The idea is, let's make it so people can focus on the concepts: Boolean logic, if statments, for loops, objects," Cosgrove says. "Once you're grounded in the foundations of computing, dealing with the syntax is easy in retrospect."
Alice 3 incorporates two major new features--characters from Electronic Arts' popular video game series, The Sims 2, and the ability for students to immediately see how the changes they make in the "drag and drop" environment affect the Java code that make the animations run. Pausch, who had taken a sabbatical at EA in 2004, used his contacts at the gaming giant to convince the company to donate a license for its intellectual property to Carnegie Mellon.

Earlier, while at the University of Virginia, Pausch had taken a sabbatical to become an "imagineer" for the Walt Disney Company. Although plenty of computer scientists were working on VR projects for Disney, no tenured professor had ever before gotten permission to work inside the House of Mouse. Pausch did--through the strength of his credentials and his own force of will. "He served as a model for the kind of individual who can bridge the gap between the arts and computer science," says Marinelli, who's now the "executive producer" of the Entertainment Technology Center. "When Randy and I first started the ETC, we thought our biggest issue would be getting 'right-brain' and 'left-brain' individuals to work together. Now, it's almost the norm for us to have students who say, 'I have a B.S. in computer science and a minor in art,' or 'I have a degree in music and a minor in C.S.'"

Marinelli, who shared an office with Pausch for six years, says that his ability to sell his ideas to skeptical faculty and students alike made him invaluable in the ETC's early years. "We became a tag team," he says, "so that when we were done with an ETC presentation, you had a sense of what it was really all about." A joint program of SCS and CFA, the ETC offers the world's only master's degree in entertainment technology for students interested in computer animation, video-game design, digital art, video and audio editing, and dozens of related fields. More than 120 students are currently enrolled in the ETC, including 62 expected to receive their degrees this year.

Pausch described himself--according to Marinelli--as "risk-averse," but Siewiorek says that working on projects like the ETC launch was actually very risky. "The normal measure of academic success is how much you've published, or how many grad students you've had," he says. By focusing on end-user applications and entertainment-oriented projects--mainly applied research, rather than pure research--Pausch was blazing his own trail, and it was one that struck some of his colleagues as unusual or maybe even frivolous.

Nevertheless, many of his papers were accepted into the best conferences and journals; Siewiorek remembers a 1994 paper that Pausch co-authored called A Three-Dimensional User Interface for Neurosurgical Visualization, which argued that neurosurgeons would get more information from magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI) scans if they had real-world, three-dimensional props that they could manipulate. When Pausch demonstrated the paper using a doll's head and a piece of cardboard, a few people asked, "Where's the science?" In fact, although the demonstration made the concept seem deceptively simple, it was a real breakthrough--by giving surgeons tactile feedback instead of a screen full of menus and icons, the user interface improved by leaps and bounds. "You'd look at things like that and say, 'wow,'" says Siewiorek, who calls Pausch's skill at spotting useful ideas in unlikely places "uncanny — he did it too often for it to be considered luck. And once he put his ideas out there, other people would grab onto them and apply them to areas never originally conceived."

Like others, Siewiorek says Pausch had a gift for cutting through distractions to the core of any concept; he calls them "Randy's elevator speeches"--short, direct summations that got to the heart of problems. Former students remember Pausch telling them "don't polish the bottom of the banisters"--don't obsess over small details to the detriment of the overall project. "Randy was a monumental detail freak," Cosgrove remembers, "but he was very strongly biased towards 'big ideas,' projects where the fundamentals were so right that you didn't have to worry about all of the small stuff to make them work."

Siewiorek says Pausch also had a habit of passing around credit for projects rather than building what he calls an "academic fiefdom. Getting the original ideas, putting the teams together, keeping them focused--he was the catalyst." In those teams, Pausch served as the spark plug, spurring the other members forward. "When Randy did get excited, it was incredibly motivating," Kelleher says. "He'd get energized." Dann can remember driving to Carnegie Mellon from Ithaca, depressed or discouraged about some obstacle in her research. After a few days with Pausch, she says, "I left encouraged and full of inspiration — he was a very powerful leader, with an extremely positive outlook. When he said, 'We're going to make this happen,' I believed him."

Pausch wasn't all warm fuzzies and positive reinforcement; while teaching "Building Virtual Worlds," he presented a "Penguin Award" each semester to the team whose project best represented a "glorious failure" caused by overreaching. The award was so named, Pausch said, because the first penguin to dive into unfamiliar waters sometimes gets eaten by sharks. "It was an acknowledgement by Randy that something really important was being attempted by the team," Lee says. "What isn't often mentioned is that people who got the Penguin Award still got failing grades for those projects." That was Pausch's way of teaching students that ambition matters, but results are important, too.

His ambitions for his "Childhood Dreams" lecture were modest, even if the results haven't been. As of this writing, the book it spawned has spent more than four months on top of The New York Times' bestseller list; all incoming Carnegie Mellon undergraduates were sent copies of The Last Lecture and encouraged to discuss it during freshman orientation. And mail addressed to Pausch continues to arrive daily--Cleah Schlueter, an SCS administrative associate and project manager, has filled several large baskets with cards and letters from around the world, from people who all say that Pausch's message has encouraged them to change their lives and follow their dreams.

Marinelli isn't worried that Pausch's death will overshadow his life. Even if the emotional impact of The Last Lecture fades, he says, Pausch's lessons will endure in the students and faculty who were inspired by his work and his personality, and who instill his example in the other people around them. "Randy said something in his last lecture about the ETC--that no other school but Carnegie Mellon would touch something like this," Marinelli says. "The subtext of that was when the world met Randy, they said, 'Gee, Carnegie Mellon was the kind of school that appreciated someone with this nontraditional point of view, wow, it must be a special place.'"

There will be a permanent tangible reminder of Pausch in the 220-foot-long bridge that connects the new Gates Center for Computer Science to the Purnell Center for the Arts. Named the Randy Pausch Memorial Footbridge, the railings will be decorated with panels engraved with stylized penguins. Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon unveiled the design at the Sept. 22 memorial service.

Randy Pausch's real legacy thus will be ensured by the people who remember him, Marinelli says: "Whether it's through the ETC or Alice, we have an obligation to make sure that Carnegie Mellon is a place where young Randy Pausches can flourish."
For More Information: 

Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 | jt3y@cs.cmu.edu