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An Inspiring Legacy

Admired and respected by his students and colleagues, Randy Pausch will be remembered as a devoted teacher and innovative researcher.
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Randy Pausch
Randy Pausch

Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want… It was one of several proverbs Randy Pausch managed to infuse with fresh relevance during his "Last Lecture" last fall. The saying was the sort of thing he loved—clichés, the old chestnuts, stories, and snippets of advice he’d collected from colleagues and friends. Pausch had a knack for selecting the right anecdote for an occasion, and for telling it in a way that invested it with new meaning and power. The fact that his stories were entertaining never seemed to diminish their pedagogical value.

We can’t change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand was another proverb Paush discussed during his "Last Lecture." His own cards, of course, included a fierce battle with the pancreatic cancer that would eventually claim his life on July 25 at the age of 47. Over the course of that battle, he managed to inspire millions of people with a heartfelt talk (and a surprise You-Tube video hit) about living well and overcoming obstacles. He also found time to raise awareness and research funding to help others with pancreatic cancer. And he carefully compiled a treasury of pictures, mementos, and opinions for his family.

Those who knew him weren’t surprised. "It’s vintage Randy," says Gabriel Robins, a professor of computer science and former colleague at the University of Virginia. "He took his own demise and turned it into an educational bonanza."

An innovative researcher and devoted teacher, Pausch is best known in his field for his pioneering work on the Alice Project, a sophisticated computing environment that teaches students how to program through an intuitive graphical interface. His passion for storytelling deeply informed his work on Alice, which enables even middle-school-age children, after just a few hours of online training, to create 3D animations. As students concentrate on making games and movies, Pausch discovered, they forget they’re also learning how to program.

"Alice gets people hooked into the big picture of computer science, instead of the syntactical details," explains Dan Siewiorek, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU’s) Human-Computer Interaction Institute. "He had a way of cutting straight to the issue and getting at the kernel."

Alice was the foundation of Pausch’s popular course on building virtual worlds, which drew students from numerous departments to collaborate on interactive animations. It also paved the way for CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), a joint program created by Pausch and Don Marinelli, a professor of drama and arts management. The ETC offers a two-year master’s degree so technologists and artists can collaborate on projects in digital entertainment.

"Randy was fearless," says Andries van Dam, a former mentor and professor of computer science at his undergraduate alma mater, Brown University. Though Alice remains Pausch’s main legacy, it was far from the only contribution he made to the field. A 1992 project at the University of Virginia called Virtual Reality on Five Dollars a Day, for example, also stands as a testament to his talent and resourcefulness. At the time, virtual reality systems were both bulky and expensive. Pausch managed to put one together using parts from a commodity PC and store-bought toys. The system’s total cost: approximately $5,000, or less than $5 for each day he’d spent working on it.

"You could always count on Randy to have an unconventional opinion," says van Dam. "It’s exactly the way science should work."

Pausch’s accomplishments were celebrated within the scientific community. Among the honors he received are ACM’s Karl V. Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award, the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education Award for Outstanding Contributions to Computer Science Education, and the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Young Investigator Award. His colleagues applauded his aptitude for bringing people from different disciplines together in a spirit of collaboration. And his students remember his ability to make computer science come alive, not just through the showmanship of his lectures, but through thoughtful, well-chosen examples.

Pausch’s story will be told for years to come. His work lives on, as well. Van Dam and his colleagues at Brown have raised money to endow an undergraduate research internship in Pausch’s name. Carnegie Mellon will honor his legacy with a memorial footbridge that connects its Center for Computer Science to an adjacent arts building. It has also created a memorial fund to enable researchers to continue Pausch’s work on Alice. Perhaps the best memorial, however, comes from Pausch himself. His "Last Lecture" continues to inspire and amaze YouTube viewers across the world, and the best-selling book-length version has already been translated into 30 languages.

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