Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Head faking kids to love programming and change the world

If Randy Pausch’s final lecture is representative of intellectual and emotional passion to be found on campus, Carnegie Mellon University must be an incredible place to learn. I watched Dr. Pausch’s final lecture, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” via YouTube on our living room television this evening with my wife thanks to a tweet by Valerie Byrd Fort earlier this evening. The video runs 76 minutes, but is WELL worth watching, thinking about and discussing.

I think I’ve read about The Alice Project (“an innovative 3D programming environment that makes it easy to create an animation for telling a story, playing an interactive game, or a video to share on the web”) previously, but I did not know much about the background, focus and goals of the initiative before watching this lecture. I certainly had not heard of Caitlin Kelleher and her related project, “Storytelling Alice.” (@klmontgomery you should look up Dr. Kelleher, she’s a professor at Washington University in St. Louis!) I’m very interested in tangibly advancing student interest and PASSION related to computer programming, scientific inquiry, and love of mathematics, and The Alice Project (similar but more advanced than Scratch) shares those goals.

Dr. Pausch shared some very practical advice along with insightful and often humorous experiences from his life in this lecture. Here are a few of his thoughts which I jotted down during the video, along with a few of my own responses and reflections.

Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.

Wow is that ever true. Reminds me of my own experiences in and following pilot training. I know the Center for Digital Storytelling asks workshop participants to tell stories from major turning points or “crossroads” in their lives, because those moments often provide a rich context for meaningful stories about “lessons learned.” That has certainly been part of my own life experiences.

Wait long enough and people will surprise and impress you.

Dr. Pausch attributed this quotation to John Snoddy (sp?) who he worked with at Walt Disney Imagineering. Patience can be SO hard, particularly when you passionately want something to happen or change. Encouraging patience and faith in the positive potential of everyone is good advice.

In the context of the Carnegie Mellon Course “Building Virtual Worlds” and Randy’s amazement at the quality of the students’ first effort projects when the course began, Randy quoted Andy Van Dam as saying:

Obviously you don’t know where the bar should be and you are going to do everyone a disservice by trying to set it.

This quotation invites me to think of our federal government, state legislatures, and NCLB, as each defines the bar of minimum standards in terms of competencies which might have been “good enough” in the 19th century.

Just as I had not heard of the “Building Virtual Worlds” course at CMU, I had also not heard of Carnegie Mellon’s innovative Entertainment Technology Center. Wow. A “Masters of Entertainment Technology” degree? A curriculum which is entirely project-based? According to Randy:

All your time [as a student in this program] is spent working in small teams and building projects.

The focus is on DOING things, CREATING things, working intensively with others. What a concept for an academic institution. Actually supporting a learning culture which closely mirrors the work environments of highly creative, successful non-academic organizations. Revolutionary.

According to Randy, some of the most important keys to life success and realizing your dreams is to:

Focus on people and learn to work well in groups.

Again, what a concept for schools. Too often, even today in 2008, “collaboration” in our K-12 public schools (and often universities) is regarded as “cheating.” Many educators fail to recognize and appropriately respond to the fact that most of life is open note, open phone, and open colleague.

Randy designed the Virtual Worlds course to be “infinitely scalable.” Wow. Now that is an academic course goal you don’t hear everyday.

The Alice Project does not merely offer a novel way to teach computer programming– according to Randy, it is a “head fake” which encourages kids to have fun telling stories– having fun while learning something hard. Again, what a great concept. According to Randy, 10% of U.S. universities are currently using Alice software. The 3.0 release is coming in 2008. Alice 2.0 is designed for high school and college students, and available for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux platforms. Storytelling Alice is designed for Middle School students. According to the “About Alice” website:

Alice is an innovative 3D programming environment that makes it easy to create an animation for telling a story, playing an interactive game, or a video to share on the web. Alice is a freely available teaching tool designed to be a student’s first exposure to object-oriented programming. It allows students to learn fundamental programming concepts in the context of creating animated movies and simple video games. In Alice, 3-D objects (e.g., people, animals, and vehicles) populate a virtual world and students create a program to animate the objects.

In addition to the introductory videos available on the CMU website, a preview video of Alice 3.0 is available on YouTube from a December 2007 Google Tech Talk.

Randy encouraged the audience in his final lecture to make a decision and make the right one: Do you choose to be a Tigger or an Eeyore? His encouragement to “never lose your childlike wonder” reminded me of the group connected to the MIT Media Lab, “Lifelong Kindergarten.” Their goal?

Sowing the seeds for a more creative society.

Now that’s a group I’d like to garden with. 🙂

planting the garden

A few other quotations worth remembering from the lecture:

Walt Disney himself (per MK Haley from Walt Disney Imagineering)– I initially had incorrectly attributed this to MK:

It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.

Advice from Randy for getting others to help you:

  • Tell the truth.
  • Be earnest.
  • Apologize when you screw up.
  • Focus on others, not yourself.

Several times Randy shared a version of the following statement on “brick walls:”

Brick walls let us show our dedication, they are there to separate us from others who really don’t want to be there.

The following piece of advice reminded me of my own blog:

Get a feedback loop and listen to it. Listening is the hard part.

Again, a great nugget of wisdom.

No one is completely evil.

Last of all:

Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.

Amen. Godspeed Randy Pausch, as you continue your battle with cancer. You have given a great deal to many, and our world is clearly a richer place because of your passion and willingness to share it.

Technorati Tags:
, , , , , , , , ,



, , , , ,




12 responses to “Head faking kids to love programming and change the world”

  1. Maureen Avatar

    I had the opportunity to meet Randy at last summer’s Alice Institute and have seen the last lecture. He is truly an amazing man.

    The team that he built at CMU work well together and build excitement about programming. Caitlin’s Storytelling Alice is a great way to teach programming and I am using both Alice 2.0 and Storytelling with my middle school kids.

    Programming projects teach so many lessons, collaboration, certainly perseverance, attention to detail, etc… and they are all done in the context of telling your story.

    The group of educators I met at Alice worked together for a week of hard work, fun and collaboration. We did individual projects, but the lounge was filled every night with teachers learning together, helping one another and lots of laughter at our mistakes.

    I don’t think that I have worked so hard on a project in years, or had so much fun doing so. It would be wonderful to infuse my students with the same enthusiasm for learning.

  2. Cheryl Oakes Avatar

    Thanks Wes, this was my first blog reading of today and surely one that will be passed along.
    Cheryl Oakes

  3. Amy Strecker Avatar

    He gave this lecture when he was given only 6 months to live (as I’m sure you know) and next Wednesday (4-9-08) Diane Swayer is interviewing him on ABC, several months after he gave this moving last lecture. It looks like it’s worth checking out.

  4. Sylvia Martinez Avatar

    I’m with you on all this stuff. Programming is THE essential 21st century skill.

    But I’m not clear on the “head faking” reference. Surely you aren’t saying we need to “trick” kids into programming?

  5. Mark Ahlness Avatar

    Wes, thanks very much for this. It’s a good example of why, after several days not following my feeds, yours is always at the top of the pile to check first. With a faraway family member currently considering the CM computer program, it’s especially encouraging. (Eva, if you’re reading here – congrats and good luck!) – Mark

  6. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Sylvia: I think Randy WAS saying in order to get some kids to learn programming (he specifically discussed girls) they DO need to be “tricked” into doing it. I think that is part of the idea behind “Storytelling Alice.” I agree this approach appears to be disingenuous, even though the “motives” are ostensibly good.

    Mark: You are very kind. I’m glad to hear you have a family member considering a computer science program. NPR had a story on March 12th about how severely down computer science degree and course enrollment has been lately. The indicators say although enrollments are down, demand for computer science graduates is high and will continue to be high.

  7. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Maureen: I am so glad to hear about your experiences in an intensive teacher workshop learning about using and teaching with Alice. I think those types of experiences are too far and few between for most teachers today. While it is great to hear about individual courses like Designing Virtual Worlds, I really think we have to find ways to make these types of course experiences COMMON rather than rare for students. I’m so glad to learn about Alice and the educator community which is using Alice and advocating for its use in PBL-focused classrooms!

  8. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Amy: Thanks for sharing that link!

  9. Matthew Avatar

    If you are interested in Randy’s current health condition, he keeps up with a status page here

  10. Sylvia Martinez Avatar

    you might like this article – “Does Easy Do It? Children, Games, and Learning” by Seymour Papert. Specifically this quote, where he is talking about the line you often hear about educational software – “it’s so good they won’t know they are learning!”

    “Frankly, I think that it is downright immoral to trick children into learning and doing math when they think they are just playing an innocent game. To make the situation worse (as if anything can be worse than lying to children), the deception does not achieve any purpose, since cooperative learners who know what they are doing will learn far better than children who go mindlessly through the motions of learning.”

    Although with Storytelling Alice, I don’t think it’s quite that bad. They are using storytelling to create interest, and then introducing a specialized programming language to allow creation of the stories. I just disagree that this is a “trick” and would hate for that to be the predominant metaphor for introducing students to programming.