Hal Abelson

Digital Library

ACM Karl V. Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award

USA - 2011


For his contribution to computing education, through his innovative advances in curricula designed for students pursuing different kinds of computing expertise, and for his leadership in the movement for open educational resources.

Abelson has been a leader in computer science education for over thirty years and continues to play a key role. His textbook "Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs," co-authored with Gerry Sussman, changed the way many thought about computing. It was widely emulated and adopted by colleges around the world. It de-emphasized the specifics of a particular programming language and concentrated on the idea of abstraction as a fundamental concept in all programming and indeed in all engineering.

This was not the only time Abelson revolutionized education. He was influential in introducing a curriculum based on the Logo programming language that introduced a constructivist approach to the learning of mathematics.

More recently he has taken a rather different view of the education that a new computer science and electrical engineering student needs. Rather than focus on the mathematical idea of abstraction, he chose to address the interaction between mathematical models and the real world. This focuses on the idea of understanding a system by performing scientific experiments, and measuring the fit of a model using probabilistic and statistical ideas. This is appropriate to today's world where software and devices are more integrated.

Abelson is interested in how students of many levels come to understand computing. He has been an advocate for the free exchange of intellectual property, thus promoting and democratizing education. His recent popular book, "Blown to Bits," helps explain these issues in policy terms rather than technical terms, for a more general audience.

Another of Abelsons efforts to help the novice or more general student is the development of the App Inventor platform, which he started while on leave at Google and has now transitioned back to MIT, App Inventor is a development environment for building applications on Android phones and tablets, aimed at people with little or none programming experience.

In addition to his curricular efforts, Abelson is a leader in the movement for open educational resources. He was the main force that convinced MIT to offer courses to the world through the MIT Open Courseware platform.