Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence 2014
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

The Enduring Connectedness of Learning

Michael Erdmann

Thank you, I feel honored to receive this award. I also feel humbled when I think of all the people who have made it possible: the students, the teaching assistants, and the staff.

The students at Carnegie Mellon are very smart and very motivated, more so every year. We can now teach material in introductory courses that appeared in graduate courses just a few years ago. As a result, lectures some days are very interactive: Even if I have taught an idea a dozen times, and think I know my way around it, invariably at least one student will have a new insight and ask a question to which I have no precooked answer. Such interactive lectures are when I am happiest.

The teaching assistants inspire me to do better. They are so very committed to helping their fellow students and producing a course in which they can take pride. In recent years, our recitations have become labs tutored by the teaching assistants. This is where significant learning takes place, eighty minutes of focused work, with teaching assistants trying to understand each student's strengths and weaknesses, guiding each student further.

The staff make it all possible, re-arranging schedules for students, finding space for office hours and staff meetings, making sure the electronics work and that there is chalk in the lecture halls, an infinite sequence of tasks.

Realizing this extensive network of interactions, I have been thinking a little about how teaching has changed in the last one hundred years. One hundred years ago, my grandmother turned 14 and her education was about to end. A more timid person likely would have remained on the family farm, but, at 15, she enrolled in a teacher's college. She learned to educate both herself and others. That choice allowed her to see the world, it supported her young family through tough times, and it earned her standing in the community: everyone knew her.

Today, such a central figure is no longer needed or necessary. The best information is likely online not on one teacher's chalkboard. Still, two themes remain: Education enables and learning connects. Our students are here to improve themselves and their lives. And despite instant electronic connectivity, in the evening our buildings are filled with students, working together, trying to understand each other's thinking, helping each other past difficulties. That too I find inspiring.

I feel privileged to be here. Thank you.

18 May 2014

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