Thursday, September 20, 2007

Dying to Teach the Lessons of Life

I have rarely read a greater act of courage or of a grander gift.

Randy Pausch is dying of cancer. In part, this is the Pittsburgh Post Gazette's online report of his final lecture.
When he was a boy, Dr. Pausch said, he had a concrete set of dreams: He wanted to experience the weightlessness of zero gravity; he wanted to play football in the NFL; he wanted to write an article for the World Book Encyclopedia ("You can tell the nerds early on," he joked); he wanted to be Captain Kirk from "Star Trek"; and he wanted to work for the Disney Co.

In the end, he got to tackle all of them, he said -- even if his football accomplishments fell somewhere short of the NFL.

In his 10 years at Carnegie Mellon, Dr. Pausch helped found the Entertainment Technology Center, which one video game executive yesterday called the premier institution in the world for training students in video game and other interactive technology.

He also established an annual virtual reality contest that has become a campuswide sensation, and helped start the Alice program, an animation-based curriculum for teaching high school and college students how to have fun while learning computer programming.

It was the virtual reality work, in which participants wear a headset that puts them in an artificial digital environment, that earned him and his Carnegie Mellon students a chance to go on the U.S. Air Force plane known as the "vomit comet," which creates moments of weightlessness, and which the students promised to model with VR technology.

And even though his football career ended in high school, he said, he probably learned more from that experience than all the other childhood goals he did achieve.

Among other things, he learned the value of the coach yelling at him for his mistakes, because an assistant coach told him after one particularly brutal practice: "When you're screwing up and nobody's saying anything to you anymore, that means they've given up on you."

While he didn't get to be Captain Kirk, actor William Shatner, who played Kirk, did visit him at Carnegie Mellon in recent years.

"It's cool to meet your boyhood idol," Dr. Pausch said. "It's even cooler when he comes to you to see what you're doing in your lab."

And he got the chance to write the World Book's article on virtual reality.

Known for his flamboyance and showmanship as a teacher and mentor, Dr. Pausch talked Disney officials into letting him work on sabbatical at the company, helping design such virtual reality rides as the Magic Carpet and Pirates of the Caribbean.

More recently, he got the chance to intern with Electronic Arts, the video game company, and that relationship prompted the firm to give Carnegie Mellon the right to use its famous Sims animated characters as part of the Alice curriculum.

Near the end of his talk yesterday, Dr. Pausch surprised his wife, Jai, with a cake for her birthday on Monday, and persuaded the audience to sing for her. She managed to choke back her tears long enough to blow out the single candle on top.

To honor his life and career, Electronic Arts announced it was setting up a scholarship fund for deserving female computer science majors at Carnegie Mellon.

And the school itself said it would put his name on the footbridge that will connect the new Gates Computer Sciences Building and the Purnell Center for the Arts, symbolizing the way he linked those disciplines.
Randy's Home Page is here.

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