Mehran Sahami recognized for educational contributions to computing

Mehran Sahami
Mehran Sahami

The world’s largest computer science society has recognized Mehran Sahami, professor (teaching) of computer science, for his outstanding contributions as a teacher, mentor and thinker in the field.

The Association for Computing Machinery recognized Sahami along with eight other professors for educational excellence as part of the  ACM’s 2019 Distinguished Member awards.

The announcement delighted but did not surprise John Mitchell, chair of computer science and the Mary and Gordon Crary Family Professor in the School of Engineering.

“This is very well deserved,” Mitchell said. “Mehran is a celebrity among students across campus and an inspiring and tireless supporter of computer science education.”

Sahami recently discussed the educational aspects of computing at length with Russ Altman, the Kenneth Fong Professor and professor of bioengineering and host of The Future of Everything radio show. The podcast and transcript of that interview covers such topics as the prospects for computer science as a career, continuing efforts to attract women and underrepresented minorities to the field and a “sea change” in the nature of computing that requires teams with interdisciplinary skills to solve complex problems.

“What students have seen, especially in the last 10 years, is that computer science is not just about sitting in a cube programming 80 hours a week,” Sahami said in the interview. “It’s about … the ability of students in other areas to come together and solve bigger problems.”

At a time when Silicon Valley faces scrutiny over privacy, fake news and other issues, Sahami expressed satisfaction that some 250 students per year, mostly computer science majors, are taking a Computers, Ethics and Public Policy course (recently renumbered CS 182)  that he co-teaches with Rob Reich, political science professor and director of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, and political scientist and former White House national security adviser Jeremy Weinstein.

In one class assignment, inspired by the case of a Wisconsin inmate who said he was unfairly sentenced, students sought to evaluate the man’s claims. The sentence was partially determined by a private company’s computer code and, since the code was proprietary, simply getting access to the underlying logic proved only one in a series of problems that exemplify the potential ethical pitfalls of life in an increasingly computerized world.

In a recent Stanford Engineering Spotlight profile, Sahami talked about detouring into the tech industry after earning his PhD to join Google during its startup days, only to decide after a few years that he really wanted to return to his first love: teaching.

“It’s pretty amazing to watch someone have an ‘aha!’ moment,” Sahami said, “to see them not only understand a topic conceptually, but begin to think about the power it will afford them in the future.”