Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence 2007
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

A Word of Thanks for The Herbert A. Simon Teaching Award

1. I Love Teaching. I love the students and their energy, their puzzlement when they almost (but don't quite) understand, and their delight when they do. I love teaching because it gives me a chance to learn new ideas and to discover something new in the old ones.

I try to teach well because of the terrible lows I get when I don't, and the highs I get when I do. The highs and lows of research are at least as impressive, though in a different way. I'm lucky to be both teacher and researcher: that way, if one isn't going well, there's still a chance the other will.

2. A Sincere Thank You. I am enormously grateful for this award, and owe a big thank you to the students who nominated me and wrote supporting letters, and the judges who put their time into choosing among competing candidates.

I am awed by the quality and dedication of my fellow teachers, and astonished that I am considered on a par with them. This semester I taught an undergraduate algorithms course, 451. I am thankful to my TAs who did the really hard work in the course. They did everything except the fun part – the lectures – which I selfishly did myself. These really great TAs are Elisabeth Crawford, Michelle Goodstein, Virginia Vassilevska, and Brent Bryan.

I want most especially to thank my son, Carnegie Mellon Computer Science Professor Avrim Blum, for supporting my desire to teach his 451 algorithms course...his way. I've taught algorithms before, and I could have taught this course my own way. It would have been easier for me, but different, and not nearly as exciting. This course this time was based entirely on Avrim's ideas, his text, his homeworks, his schedule, his quizzes, his exams,....

Thank you Avrim! It blows me away how much information you manage to convey: roughly twice what I put out doing it my way. I like very much what you do and how you do it.

3. A Personal Note for My Students: Ever wonder what sort of students your teachers were? Most of them as you likely know were at the very top of their class. Not me, though I truly wanted to be up there. Trouble is, I had no idea how to learn, and no idea how to think. How does one learn a multiplication table that refuses to stick in your brain? How does one remember a date or a name? (If anyone mentioned mnemonics to me that suggestion didn't stick. I had to come up with the idea independently.) Finally, and most importantly, how does one solve elegant tantalizing mathematical problems? How does one even go about getting a handle on solving new problems? I didn't know.

Everything I learned came to me...slowly:

  • 1st grade: The meaning of number. 3 apartment buildings versus 7 cherries: cherries small; buildings big. How could there be more cherries than apartment buildings? Oh wow! Counting doesn't necessarily have to do with size!

  • 2nd grade: how to tell right from left? I write with my right hand! My first mnemonic.

  • High school combinatorics: How does one count the number of necklaces with 7 red, 5 orange, and 3 yellow beads? I should have developed a general method (formula?), and then tested my method of counting on special cases, like the trivial necklace with 1 black bead and 1 white bead. But that didn't occur to me...and it wouldn't until many years later.

  • College Freshman year: I got a D+ in physics, despite that I worked terribly hard at it. I worked hard but got nowhere until a friend, Bob Hertel, caught me hunched over my book, memorizing formulas. "You don't memorize formulas: you derive them when you need them...from first principles!" Oh my God, I didn't know that! Those words – from a peer – made all the difference to me.

  • College Sophomore year: A (different) friend offers a steak dinner to whoever can solve the problem* of the 5 shipwrecked sailors, the monkey, and the coconuts: how many coconuts? It took me a whole Thanksgiving to construct an answer. I was so proud. But the answer wasn't minimal. So no steak dinner. Only much later would I realize that to answer this problem, one best start small. Assume just 3 sailors, and if that's too many, try 2, or even just 1. Hey, that works for all those probability and combinatorics problems from high school too!

4. We are born into this world without a manual. It is our job to learn without one...indeed to develop our own unique and personal manual. It's a really great project. Good luck with it! And finally, good luck and best wishes for an exciting and enjoyable life.

Manuel Blum, 2007

*  5 shipwrecked sailors gather up all the coconuts and agree in the morning to divide the entire stash evenly amongst themselves.
 In the middle of the night, sailor 1 wakes up and decides to take his share. He divides the stash into 5 equal piles with 1 left over, which he throws to the monkey, then goes back to sleep.
 Sailors 2,3,4,5 in turn wake up and do the same thing, each throwing the one extra coconut to the monkey.
 In the morning, the sailors wake up, divide the remaining coconuts into 5 equal piles, with none left over.
 How many coconuts?

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