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

Trailing the Lead Rope

Bernd Bruegge

I have been asked to offer a few thoughts during this commencement. Unfortunately I cannot do this in person, but I do want to offer a few words in modern collaborative fashion -- separated over space and time.

Bellevue is a small suburb with about a 1 mile diameter and a very low crime rate; seeing a car erratically moving through the streets, with four people inside and full of electronic equipment, taking the same turns again and again at 3:00 a.m. in the morning, made the officers on patrol very suspicious. When they finally brought the car to a stop and asked the drivers what they were doing, they got the answer:

"We are doing an alpha-test for 15-499."

I am not sure the officers understood what an alpha-test was, but they let the car go, once they heard that this was approved by the Chief of Police. The real reason for the erratic turns was that the students were completely lost at that time, because they had lost contact with their fleet tracking server running on a workstation here on campus. Of course, they could have asked the officers for directions, but that was not part of their system test procedure! It was also not necessary. Once the server was rebooted and the icon of the car showed clearly once more on the display of the dispatcher workstation, the rest of the project team was able to guide the car back to campus without any problems.

Building a large complex system can be compared to climbing a big mountain. Often you have to cross a glacier to get to the top, but no glacier can be completely mapped out. In fact, as soon as you have created a map of the territory and want to pass it on to your fellow climbers, the route has almost certainly changed. The current state of the art in Computer Science is similar. Knowledge is changing with a rapid speed and solutions that had been accepted and taught just a few years ago, are now completely out of date.

How can we teach students to cope with such a fast changing environment? We are often tempted to reduce teaching to naming and classifying, thereby emphasizing learning as the absorption of existing knowledge. But that means we forget about the distinction between a map and the trip itself. For me, the knowledge that is most important to pass on to a student is not the map, but how to negotiate the terrain. While it is wise to study a description of the route, there is no replacement for the actual experience of climbing a mountain. The best educational experience we can give to students on their way to industry or research is to let them climb this mountain with our guidance. But we should not be surprised when the students are suddenly taking the lead end of the rope. In this case, our task is to make sure that they don't get too much off-route. But we shouldn't be surprised, either, if they find a completely new route.

The Bellevue episode illustrates the spirit of our students and what they can do if we let them take the initiative. When they go out into industry or academia, they have already learned what it means to be a leader. I am happy to be a member of a university that makes this type of learning experience possible.

Return to: SCS Faculty Awards