Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence 2006
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

Our Hearts Are in the Work

David Eckhardt

Receiving this recognition in the name of Herb Simon — a person of truly diverse interests and accomplishments, solid principles, intellectual honesty, and dedication to this institution — is hugely encouraging to me. It suggests I'm on the right track and have made reasonable progress. In addition it provides a touchstone by which I can measure my efforts to develop in the future.

One thing I've figured out over the years is the utter necessity of hands-on experience. Actually, I figured this out the hard way, in my high school trigonometry class. Through a careful series of experiments over the course of a year I determined that my exam grades were a linear function of the amount of homework I completed. By varying the amount of homework I did, I was able to obtain a wide variety of exam scores, ranging from outright failure to modest success. Perhaps due to the vividness of this experience, one of my working assumptions is that students learn best when they're up to their elbows in reality, whether it's implementing an operating system which can run on actual hardware, or implementing network protocols by reading actual Internet RFC standard documents.

Several other aspects of what happens in my classes could be covered by the term "debugging." Of course, teaching inherently involves a refinement process which can be considered a routine sort of debugging: a continual process of polishing, rearranging, and developing class material. More importantly, our 400-level courses are where our students confront problems hard enough to require real debugging — a scientific process involving hypothesis generation, experimental design, measurement, and interpretation.

I also try to engage my students in a higher-level form of debugging, namely design followed by implementation — and hopefully evaluation. By providing an environment with open-ended, "more than one way to do it" problems, I hope students can practice consciously choosing design elements before implementation and then reflecting afterward on how those choices worked out.

Teaching at CMU is great because people all through the university agree it matters. It's inspiring to have a dean who teaches sophomore classes, and it's infectious to have students who are fully engaged, who carve time out of their schedules to build robots, build Carnival booths, build Sweepstakes buggies — and, when serving as teaching assistants and Student College instructors, to build classes for other students. It's great to teach here because our hearts are in the work.

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