Randy Pausch, Innovative Computer Scientist at Carnegie Mellon,
Launched Education Initiatives, Gained Worldwide Acclaim for Last Lecture
PITTSBURGH—Randy Pausch, renowned computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, died July 25 of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 47.
Celebrated in his field for co-founding the pioneering Entertainment Technology Center and for creating the innovative educational software tool known as "Alice," Pausch earned his greatest worldwide fame for his inspirational "Last Lecture."
That life-affirming lecture, a call to his students and colleagues to go on without him and do great things, was delivered at Carnegie Mellon on Sept. 18, 2007, a few weeks after Pausch learned he had just months to live. Titled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," the humorous and heartfelt talk was videotaped, and unexpectedly spread around the world via the Internet. Tens of millions of people have since viewed video footage of it.
Pausch, who had regularly won awards in the field of computer science, spent the final months of his life being lauded in arenas far beyond his specialty. ABC News declared him one of its three "Persons of the Year" for 2007. TIME magazine named him to its list of the 100 most influential people in the world. On thousands of Web sites, people wrote essays about what they had learned from him. His book based on the lecture became a #1 bestseller internationally, translated into 30 languages.
A Gifted Teacher
Many who knew Pausch before he became famous were not surprised that he touched others so deeply. They had seen this ability in him during his years as a professor.
"Randy had an enormous and lasting impact on Carnegie Mellon," said University President Jared L. Cohon. "He was a brilliant researcher and gifted teacher. His love of teaching, his sense of fun and his brilliance came together in the Alice project, which teaches students computer programming while enabling them to do something fun - making animated movies and games. Carnegie Mellon - and the world - are better places for having had Randy Pausch in them."
"Randy was a force of nature," said Gabriel Robins, a computer science professor at the University of Virginia and Pausch's former colleague. Robins recalls Pausch drawing large crowds, long before he was famous, for his entertaining and thought-provoking lectures about time management. "He had a very visceral, fundamental resonance to the core of humanity. It's not an accident that people flocked to him; people of all ages, cultures and religions. I thought of him as a genius of many things - not just science and research, but marketing, branding, selling, convincing, leading and showing by example."
Pausch was well-known within the academic community for developing interdisciplinary courses and research projects that attracted new students to the field of computer science. He also spent his career encouraging computer scientists to collaborate with artists, dramatists and designers.
"Good teaching is always a performance, but what Randy did was in a class all by itself," said Andy van Dam, co-founder of the computer science department at Brown University, which Pausch attended as an undergraduate. Van Dam, a longtime mentor to Pausch, was impressed by "the care and affection he lavished on his students. They responded to him as athletes do to a great coach who cares not only about winning but about the team players as individuals."
Pausch, the father of three young children, saw it as his mission to help enable the dreams of his students. In his last lecture, he spoke of how grateful he was to those who had helped him along the way: professors, colleagues, a football coach, and especially, his own parents. He explained how he had dreamed of writing a World Book Encyclopedia entry, experiencing zero gravity and creating Disney attractions - all dreams that were fulfilled. He said he learned even more from dreams that didn't come true, such as being a pro football player. He also shared a host of lessons - about finding the good in other people, about seeing "brick walls" not as obstacles but as challenges, and about living generously.
"If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself," Pausch said. "The dreams will come to you."
At the end of the talk, he revealed that he had given it mostly to serve as a roadmap for his three young children. The book based on the talk has a similar purpose. As he explained it: "I'm attempting to put myself in a bottle that will one day wash up on the beach for my children."
The book, titled "The Last Lecture," was a #1 New York Times bestseller, and also topped bestseller lists in USA Today, Publisher's Weekly, and other publications around the world. It was co-written by Jeffrey Zaslow of the Wall Street Journal (a 1980 Carnegie Mellon alumnus). The lecture and book led to intense media interest in Pausch. He appeared twice on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Pausch and his wife Jai were also the subjects of an hour-long ABC News Primetime special in April hosted by Diane Sawyer and viewed by 8.2 million people.
Bridging Computer Science and the Arts
Pausch joined the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science faculty in 1997 with appointments in the Computer Science Department, the Human-Computer Interaction Institute and the School of Design. He soon launched an interdisciplinary course, called Building Virtual Worlds, in which student teams designed interactive animations. The results were so spectacular that roommates, friends and even parents of the students would attend class on days when projects were presented. A showcase of the projects attracted a standing-room-only crowd to the campus' largest auditorium. These end-of-semester shows have established themselves as a premier event on campus during finals week.
Pausch and Don Marinelli, professor of drama and arts management, extended this approach by creating the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), a joint program of the School of Computer Science and the College of Fine Arts. This master's degree program trains artists, engineers and computer scientists to work together as they spearhead developments in digital storytelling and other new forms of entertainment technology.
"In an era of ever-increasing specialization, Randy promoted interdisciplinary teams based upon mutual respect, building bridges between fine arts and computer science," said Dan Siewiorek, head of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute. "Randy's legacy is his technology that made computer science accessible to the non-specialists."
Inspiring New Generations of Computer Scientists
Perhaps his most ambitious effort was Alice, a computer programming environment that enables novices to create 3-D computer animations using a drag-and-drop interface. "The best way to teach somebody something," Pausch explained, "is to have them think they're learning something else." With Alice, students concentrate on making movies and games, but they also are learning to program.
Carnegie Mellon makes downloads of the Alice software available for free at www.alice.org. Eight textbooks on Alice have been written. Alice is used by 10 percent of U.S. colleges and in many high schools. Also available is a version for middle school children called "Storytelling Alice," which was designed by Caitlin Kelleher, Pausch's Ph.D. student, to appeal in particular to young girls with hopes of increasing female interest in computer science careers. A new version of Alice, featuring animated characters donated by Electronic Arts from its best-selling game "The Sims," is slated for release in 2009.
In his last lecture, Pausch said: "Like Moses, I get to see the Promised Land, but I don't get to step foot in it. That's OK. I will live on in Alice."
A Footbridge to the Future
Pausch earned his undergraduate degree in computer science at Brown University in 1982 and his Ph.D. in computer science at Carnegie Mellon in 1988. Before joining the Carnegie Mellon faculty in 1997, he served on the computer science faculty at the University of Virginia from 1988 to 1997 and spent a 1995 sabbatical working at Walt Disney Imagineering's Virtual Reality Studio.
A fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), he is the recipient of the ACM's Karl V. Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award and the Award for Outstanding Contribution to Computer Science Education from the ACM's Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE). He authored or co-authored five books and more than 60 reviewed journal and conference articles.
Last September, Carnegie Mellon announced a plan to honor Pausch's memory. A computer scientist with the heart of a performer, he was a tireless advocate and enabler of collaboration between artistic and technical faculty members. That role will be signified by the Randy Pausch Memorial Footbridge, which will connect the Gates Center for Computer Science, now under construction, with an adjacent arts building. "Based on your talk, we're thinking of putting a brick wall on either end," joked President Cohon, announcing the honor. He went on to say: "Randy, there will be generations of students and faculty who will not know you, but they will cross that bridge and see your name and they'll ask those of us who did know you. And we will tell them."
Pausch is survived by his wife, Jai, and their three children, Dylan, Logan and Chloe. Also surviving are his mother, Virginia Pausch of Columbia, Md., and a sister, Tamara Mason of Lynchburg, Va. The family plans a private burial in Virginia, where they relocated last fall. A campus memorial service is being planned. Details will be announced at a later date.
The family requests that donations on his behalf be directed to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, 2141 Rosecrans Ave., Suite 7000, El Segundo, CA 90245, or to Carnegie Mellon's Randy Pausch Memorial Fund (www.cmu.edu/giving/pausch), which primarily supports the university's continued work on the Alice project.