Charles Deering McCormick award for Teaching Excellence

Michael Peshkin, May 26, 2011

Thank you President Shapiro, Provost Linzer. This is about as nice an honor as I could receive from the University, especially because classroom teaching is not a natural talent of mine. By rights it ought to be. When I was born my parents lived right over there on Orrington Street. My father was on the faculty in Physics, and my mother was a grad student in Education. A Northwestern couple, and I am so pleased that they are both here with me today. My grandfather was a high school math teacher in New York City.

One of my most important teachers was also a high school math teacher. Mr. Peterson, at York High School in Elmhurst Illinois. Like so many high school teachers, he didn't have a first name. Mr. Peterson was in a wheel chair from polio, and he had fascinating calluses across his palms from rolling himself around.

I never took a whole course from Mr. Peterson. The school got a PDP-8 computer in 1972, a costly item at that time that few high schools would be able to purchase in today's political climate. Mr. Peterson taught an informal one-week course on programming. That's all you could do with a computer in 1972, you could program; that’s it. I and a few others took to it immediately. The math lab became the hub of my school day. Also of my social life, unfortunately.

After a while Mr. Peterson gave us the secret instruction manuals and we learned to program in assembly code, which is the native tongue of computers. We translated our programs into binary by hand, and flipped switches on the front panel of the computer to get the bits into memory, one by one.

Mr. Peterson let us take over the computer for hours at a time to experiment. He let us open it up to attach wires to the chips for purposes of sound, so we could program the computer to play notes, and then tunes. This risked a significant repair bill if things went badly. It was either brave or stupid of Mr. Peterson, but I think brave.

I programmed the computer to calculate e. E is a transcendental number; an infinite string of non-repeating digits. Like pi but even cooler. I got 2048 digits of e. These were digits deep inside of e, that maybe no one in the whole world had ever laid eyes upon before. No one in my school, for sure.

Later in high school, with my new skills, I got a summer job with a research group in Chicago, programming a computer to digitize and record brain waves from developmentally delayed kids.

After that, one thing led to another, and here I am.

Now, this is how the story relates to my educational philosophy. Yesterday I typed "2048 digits of e" into google. The very first hit was "20000 digits of e". There isn't much a student can create today on a computer screen that he or she can’t just find or use on the web already, done better and slicker by someone else. How can I give my students the sense of empowerment that I felt, programming that primitive computer?

To me the answer is, get off the screen. When a student builds something physical, even if it’s only a few transistors and lights, or a motor, it operates in the physical world. Inventing an electronic circuit, building a robot, programming your robot – to coin a phrase, “there’s no app for that.”

Furthermore, these are great cross-disciplinary skills that our students really need, and that empower them to do independent projects. They can build things that work.

My courses require money for tools and supplies. It's all stuff that the students keep. I believe that giving students enabling tools, and then collecting them at the end of the quarter, sends the wrong message. Dean Ottino has supported development of the tools and initiatives, and Cate Brinson has covered the running costs straight out of the department general budget. Not grudgingly but enthusiastically.

Educational innovation requires support from the institution, and not only financial support. Also respect: innovative teaching needs to be a worthy endeavor in the eyes of one's colleagues. Having awards like this one sets the right tone. It also helps to have the right colleagues. My colleagues have been especially wonderful, and I'd like to acknowledge my closest collaborators: Ed Colgate and Kevin Lynch. They are in fact both previous recipients of this same Charles Deering McCormick award. It's inspiring, and always a challenge, to keep up with them. Thank you for this award.