Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence 2011
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

You never really understand it until you have to explain it to someone else

Avrim Blum

One of the great things about our field is there are so many exciting ideas, concepts, algorithms, and techniques – methods for defining and formalizing the seemingly undefinable, and ways of solving seemingly impossible problems. It makes teaching fun, and in a way, a privilege. What I like best about teaching is that it gives one the chance to really understand all the different angles of something. For example, to teach an algorithm one should really know not just why this particular interesting algorithm works to solve a problem, but also the simplest counterexamples to why all the more obvious things you might try don't work; and not just one proof, but several different proofs that each yield their own insights.

I have always found you never really understand a thing until you have to explain it to someone else. This holds true even for results from my own papers! In fact, in working on research problems, I often find it helps to pretend I am explaining whatever I have so far to an imaginary student or colleague (in particular, an infinitely patient one). This helps clarify things in my mind and makes it easier to figure out the next step.

In terms of advice to others, I think all I can say is prepare a lot. Even then, sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn't, but whenever I don't prepare it never goes well.

I feel very honored to receive this award. I have learned a lot from great teachers in this environment, and a lot from my students. I would like to thank my students, colleagues, and family: both computer scientists and not!


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