By Meghan Holohan
"I knew I wanted to teach when I was in second grade," Mark Stehlik says.
That's when Stehlik set up an easel blackboard in the garage of his parents' house in Queens, New York. Every day after school, he patiently taught English to his neighbor, Carlos. For several months, Stehlik sounded out English words and introduced the basics of grammar to Carlos Ramirez, who had moved with his family to the United States from Costa Rica. After completing a few exercises, the two would chat so Carlos could bolster his conversational skills.
Carlos returned to Costa Rica and now works as an architect, but Stehlik's love of teaching has never waned.
- (Editor's Note: Have a favorite Mark Stehlik story? Email The Link or write to The Link Magazine, Office of the Dean, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213 USA.)
But after 30 years of working in computer science education at CMU's Pittsburgh campus, Stehlik is making a major change--he's gone to CMU's Doha, Qatar campus, where he has begun a five-year appointment as associate dean of education.
"All I've done is care about the students who come through this door," he says.
Colleagues say he sells himself short. "Mark has been the heart and soul of our very successful undergraduate program since its inception in 1988," says Randy Bryant, university professor and dean of the School of Computer Science. "Mark sets a standard of excellence as an educator that makes the rest of us try harder. His concern for the students, both in terms of their educational experience and their personal lives, makes us all do our jobs better."
As a high school student at St. Francis Prep in Queens, N.Y., Stehlik took a FORTRAN programming course, punching his programs into paper tape, feeding them into a reader and sending them over a 300-baud modem to a mainframe on Wall Street for processing. That experience gave him a lifelong love of programming, and combined with a love of math sparked by a sixth-grade teacher, inspired him to major in math and computer science at New York's Pace University.
As he neared graduation from Pace, an advisor suggested that Stehlik pursue a Ph.D. in computer science, so he applied to CMU, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York University. When CMU accepted him, his advisor urged Stehlik to take the offer, saying, "You got into Carnegie Mellon, you have to go there!"
But after two years in the Ph.D. program, Stehlik realized that he was increasingly unhappy doing research. When his advisor, Jon Bentley, left CMU for Bell Labs and a position as a computer science lecturer opened up, Stehlik asked if he could try teaching instead. The department gave Stehlik a semester to prove himself. It was all that he needed.
When students evaluated their professors and classes at the end of the semester, Stehlik had the highest scores of any faculty member, and Stehlik realized he loved teaching as much as he did when he taught English in his parents' garage. When a permanent position became available, Stehlik abandoned his Ph.D. and turned his full attention to teaching, including many of the department's 100-level courses in Pascal, C, C++, Java and Python. In 1993, Stehlik was given Carnegie Mellon's award for Outstanding Contributions to Academic Advising and Mentoring, and in 1997, he received SCS's Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence.
Stehlik's impact has been widely felt, not just in SCS but also in other departments. About 900 students take 100-level classes in computer science every semester, Bryant says, and a majority of CMU undergraduates take at least one SCS course during their academic career.
"Mark has also consistently been part of the teams that devise new introductory courses," Bryant says.
And while Stehlik describes himself simply as a teacher, his impact on computer science education has been felt far beyond Carnegie Mellon. In 2010, he co-authored "Running on Empty: The Failure to Teach K-12 Computer Science in the Digital Age," a report examining the fragile state of computer science education in the United States. He also co-authored Karel++: A Gentle Introduction to the Art of Object-Oriented Programming; Karel the Robot: A Gentle Introduction to the Art of Programming; and an early teacher's guide to advanced placement computer science. Stehlik has trained hundreds of high school teachers for Advanced Placement, or AP, courses in computer science since they were first developed in 1984. He also served as the Chief Reader for the AP exams in computer science, supervising the grading of 15,000 AP exams over the course of a week.
Jim Roberts, a former faculty colleague in Computer Science and now an adjunct instructor in CMU's College of Fine Arts, has taught many courses with Stehlik over the years, and co-authored the Karel books with him. "We wanted to have fun teaching," he says. "We felt if the students didn't have fun, we wouldn't have fun. We'd plan the next assignment based on the last. If the last was too easy, we'd structure a harder one. If it was too hard, we'd reinforce the (basics)."
Roberts fondly recalls the two of them playing pranks on each other and occasionally getting into heated debates with Stehlik during class, which he says helped to engage students in the lessons. "We tried to challenge the students and each other while we were teaching," Roberts says.
At a going-away party for Stehlik, David Kosbie, assistant professor of computer science and this year's SCS Simon Award winner, said Stehlik's example made him a better teacher. Kosbie said that when he first began teaching, it didn't go well. As he wondered how he could improve, he stumbled upon the obvious solution.
"One thing I kept telling my students was, 'Find a mentor and model him,'" Kosbie said. "And so this is exactly what I did. And the best educator I know is Mark, so I went to the school of Mark, and tried to be just like Mark. And guess what? It actually worked."
Kosbie broke down the "school of Mark" into three "rules":
- Students first, no matter what;
- No matter how hard they work, work harder; and
- Attend to the whole student, not just their mind.
As the Department of Computer Science became the School of Computer Science in 1988, Stehlik continued teaching, but was asked to consider playing a larger role in the new school in advising and curriculum development. Somewhat reluctant to apply, he went to Nico Habermann, founding dean of SCS. Habermann suggested that Stehlik consider becoming director of the undergraduate program.
"I'll only apply if I can still teach," Stehlik said.
"Let me understand this," Habermann said, skeptically. "You'll take the job, if we let you do more work?"
Stehlik sheepishly admitted that was one way to look at it.
Adding advising to his teaching duties means that Stehlik was now interacting with virtually every SCS undergraduate. As a result, asking Stehlik to pick a favorite student is impossible. There are "hundreds of students" he remembers fondly, either because he served as their advisor or because he taught them in class. "I wouldn't delude myself into thinking that I had a huge impact on everyone, but I believe I interacted meaningfully with a lot of them," Stehlik says.
And there are quite a few students with fond memories of meaningful interactions with Stehlik. He's a fast talker and when he talks, thoughts tumble out. His voice carries through the hallways and his passions are legendary, as is his "ride," a green 1969 Plymouth Sport Satellite, which his parents, Ladislav and Lillian, bought new and then gave to him when he started grad school. On its last out-of-state trip for CMU, Stehlik piled a team of students into the car and drove them to Ontario for a programming competition in the dead of winter.
"He's fun, he's intense, he doesn't dumb things down," says Helen Malyutin Rennie (CS'99). Although Rennie took only one course with Stehlik, she came to know him better because he was her advisor, like many other students who have gone through SCS as undergraduates.
"What makes him so great is that no problem fell out of his realm. It could be a personal problem, health- or family- or stress-related, or it could be as basic as 'I am failing modern math,"' she says. In Rennie's case, Stehlik found a solution to the problematic math course--he helped Rennie find a course that better fit both her background and her educational goals.
And Stehlik's help continued outside of the classroom, and far afield from computer science. Rennie and her husband Jason (CS'99), were well into planning their wedding when they discovered the minister they'd chosen was a bad match for them. Who could they ask instead? What person did both the bride and groom like, trust and respect? The answer was Mark Stehlik. So they asked him to preside over the wedding ceremony. After thinking it over for a while, he agreed. (A Baltimore magistrate served as the legal officiant.)
"Mark added a few words of his own and that was fabulous," Helen Rennie says. "It was a very memorable experience and I did not think there could be a better wedding."
Stehlik, it seems, is always willing to tackle new experiences, and his example rubs off on his students. "Mark is the kind of guy who would do anything for you and you know it," says Melitta Andersen (CS'07). "It brings out the best in people."
When Andersen was a student, Stehlik set up a volleyball net on campus every Friday, urging computer science students to play as a way to relieve stress after a busy week of courses and homework. Every week, Andersen would dig and spike with the other CS students and soon Stehlik was asking her for help. He had founded a volleyball team at his daughter Kristin's elementary school, and he needed a few assistant coaches.
So, two nights a week, Andersen and other CS students who Stehlik had recruited joined Stehlik in the gym of Sacred Heart Elementary School in Pittsburgh's Shadyside neighborhood, where they watched the students run drills and helped the girls improve their mastery of the fundamentals.
Just as with advising SCS undergraduates, Andersen says Stehlik had a knack for understanding where each player was in her development, and encouraging her to accomplish what she could. Andersen recalls Stehlik celebrating when a young student hit the ball over the net for the first time just as much as when a skilled player made a great save. (Kristin Stehlik is now 24. Stehlik also has a son, Matthew, 28, who grew up playing Friday afternoon volleyball on the mall, and a stepson, Damian, 38.)
"He was always looking for ways to help people learn and grow in ways that you can succeed," Andersen says. "He would push you further than you thought you could go, but not further than you could go."
When necessary, Stehlik was willing to go the extra mile for students--or in one case, 400 miles. In September 2004, four CS majors were involved in a car accident in Sandusky, Ohio. Their car was totaled. Unable to get home, they called Stehlik. At 11 p.m. He drove to Sandusky, picked them up, made sure they were OK, brought them back to Pittsburgh, got home at 5 a.m. and was in his office later that same morning.
Some journeys were more figurative than literal. In the fall of his senior year, Nathaniel Manista (CS'02, S'02) decided he wanted to graduate both with the physics degree he'd already been pursuing as well as with a computer science degree. To do it, he would need to stay at CMU an additional year and finish all of the CS major requirements in three semesters.
Stehlik didn't discourage Manista, but he also pulled no punches. "He made it clear what kind of performance would be expected, what I was getting into, and what kind of attitude that I would need to succeed," Manista says. "I was an atypical, non-traditional student," he says, adding that Stehlik warned him, "You are sort of on your own."
But Manista wasn't on his own. In addition to guiding Manista through his fifth year as a CMU undergraduate and the immersion into a completely new program, Stehlik served as the instructor for a special 3-unit independent study class which Manista took during his last semester.
Despite taking a heavy load of CS classes, a quirk in the way that courses were weighted left Manista just shy of the full-time minimum, so Stehlik created a 3-unit course in darts. Once a week, the "class" met at Stehlik's home, where the two played darts and talked about organizational politics and management. Manista also gained insight into Stehlik.
"One of the greatest privileges of my friendship with Mark has been having a very unique and valuable view into his thoughts and feelings on what it is like to be in service to hundreds of students," Manista says. "I feel like I get to see what not many others get to see--what he finds rewarding and what he finds to be a struggle." (Manista says he was able to get the better of Stehlik about 20 percent of the time. Although there was no doubt about Manista's final grade, his "final exam" score was determined by the sum of five darts. As Stehlik remembers, Manista's first dart was a triple-20.)
After graduation, Manista continued visiting Stehlik's home to throw darts. As the friendship grew between the two, Manista began bringing his girlfriend, Krista, to cheer for him. When he proposed to her and the two began planning the wedding, Manista needed to pick a best man, and decided on Stehlik. He also served as their chauffeur after the ceremony and took the opportunity of being alone with the newlyweds to impart some words of marital wisdom.
"He gave us some really great advice, thoughts and commandments," Manista says. "Krista and I still repeat to each other things he told us. Usually during the good times, sometimes during the fights, and in general, not often enough."
At times, Stehlik has stepped up for people he didn't even know. During her freshman year, Natalie Morris (CS'12) was sitting on a beanbag chair near Stehlik's office, crying, when he approached her with a box of tissues. He wasn't her advisor or teacher at the time, but she needed help, so he took the time to find out what was wrong, she says.
"He advises anyone who needs it, even if he's not officially your advisor," Morris says, joking that she eventually learned that Stehlik "could solve any problem."
Stehlik did become Morris' official advisor during the last three years of her college career, and besides approving her classes (and letting her vent), he took an interest in her professional goals. "Officially, you have to have one meeting per semester with your advisor," Morris says. "Mark has an open door policy, which is pretty atypical."
When a company was on campus that Stehlik thought Morris would be interested in, he made sure to point it out. "He knew that I was interested in aerospace as a possible career," Morris says. "If he knows you're interested in a particular company or career path, he'll send you special e-mails when that recruiter will be here."
In the fall of her junior year, recruiters from SpaceX, the private space exploration company created by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, visited campus, and representatives asked Stehlik to suggest students to meet them for dinner. Morris was on his list. She talked to them and a few weeks later she received an internship offer. After spring graduation, she moved to Los Angeles to start her career at SpaceX.
Stehlik gets emotional when he talks about leaving the Pittsburgh campus. He will miss hosting Thanksgiving dinner for students who were not going home for the holiday. This tradition started 21 years ago and his wife and kids still talk about students that they met along the way. One day, while taking the bus home to Carnegie, Stehlik got stuck in traffic because of rain and a Pitt basketball game and started thinking about the students who hold a special place in his heart. He had gotten to 100 before he arrived home, and only stopped because he had to turn off his computer.
But as much as Pittsburgh has meant to him, he's also excited about the opportunities that Doha presents. As associate dean of education for CMU's campus at Education City, Stehlik will have plenty of problems to tackle, and says his experiences working at SCS during its early years will help.
"I like to be able to chart my own path," Stehlik says. "I'm much happier where I can solve problems and do so in a creative way."
-- Meghan Holohan is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer whose work has appeared at Salon, MentalFloss.com and NBCNews.com.