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Abelson honored as outstanding educator

Wins ACM's Karl V. Karlstom Award
Hal Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
Hal Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
Photo: Patsy Sampson/EECS

Hal Abelson has been honored by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) with the Karl V. Karlstom Outstanding Educator Award for his contributions to computer science education. Abelson is the Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, a principal investigator at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and co-chair of the MIT Council on Educational Technology.

For Abelson, being honored for his work as an educator is a crowning achievement.

“Of all the ways to be honored, for me education is the one that really means the most,” Abelson says. “That’s how I think of myself at MIT, as a teacher.”

Abelson was honored by the ACM for innovative advances in curricula designed for students pursuing different kinds of computing expertise. Along with Professor Gerry Sussman (also a principal investigator at CSAIL), Abelson developed MIT’s introductory computer science course, “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs.” The course was revolutionary in that it introduced a new method for teaching computer science that de-emphasized programming language specifics and concentrated on the mathematical idea of abstraction as a fundamental concept in programming.

Throughout his career, Abelson has been dedicated to democratizing access to education through computer science. Through his work with the MIT Council on Educational Technology, he played a key role in launching MIT OpenCourseWare, a web-based publication of MIT course content accessible to all, and D-Space, MIT’s online repository of digital research materials, with the goal of using the Internet to provide equal access to the learning and education underway at universities.

Abelson is currently working on a new tool called App Inventor, which allows individuals with no computer science background to program and develop mobile applications. With this technology, Abelson’s goal is to empower all individuals — and children in particular — by giving them the ability to contribute to the creation of new technologies. Through App Inventor, people around the world have developed a wide variety of new programs, from applications that remind people not to text while driving to an application created by students in Arkansas that tracks wild hog sightings.

Abelson’s interest in providing children with access to technology was inspired by his work as a graduate student at MIT on the Logo Programming Language, which was designed as a tool for educating children. In the same way that he was inspired to put computers into the hands of children in the 1970s, today Abelson hopes to make mobile computing available to all.

According to Abelson, “App Inventor takes that sense of empowerment, that notion of, ‘Why shouldn’t 12-year-olds be in control of mobile phones or tablets or the next branch of mobile technology?’ There are real opportunities for computer science to have an impact on education in the future.”

Abelson is a fellow of the IEEE and is co-director of MIT’s Center for Mobile Learning. He received MIT’s Bose Award, the IEEE Computer Society Taylor L. Booth Education Award for continued contributions to the pedagogy and teaching of introductory computer science, and the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE) Award for outstanding contributions to computer science education.

The Karl V. Karlstom Outstanding Educator Award is presented annually to an outstanding educator who is appointed to a recognized educational baccalaureate institution. The recipient is recognized for advancing new teaching methodologies; effecting new curriculum development or expansion in computer science and engineering; or making a significant contribution to the educational mission of ACM. A prize of $5,000 is supplied by Pearson Education.

The ACM will present this award at the ACM Awards Banquet on June 16 in San Francisco.

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