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Sahami’s quirky teaching a draw for students


It’s 3:10 p.m., Monday afternoon. Over 600 students are crammed into Hewlett 200 like canned sardines. The students who arrived 20 minutes earlier are fortunate enough to find seats. Other students must seat themselves in the aisles. The rumble of animated chatter dies down when they are all greeted by an energetic, bespectacled man–associate professor of computer science Mehran Sahami ’92 M.S., ’93 Ph.D. ’99.

Sahami has attained mythical status on campus for his teaching ability, but few students are aware of the origins of his passion for computing and teaching.

It all started in fifth grade.

“My class got a Commodore PET,” Sahami said, referring to a personal computer produced in the late 1970s and early 80s. Interestingly enough, the PET failed to kindle Sahami’s interest in computing. Sahami’s fascination with computing remained latent until his matriculation to Stanford in 1987, where he enrolled in CS106A.

He took CS106A with former computer science lecturer Stuart Reges M.S. ’82, “and [that] was the moment I rediscovered my passion for computing,” Sahami said.

Sahami’s own experience with CS106A also sparked his interest in teaching.

“Stuart Reges made me realize that teaching could be a career, and that really excited me,” Sahami said.

He credited associate professor of computer science Daphne Koller Ph.D. ‘94, who served as his doctoral advisor, and computer science professor Eric Roberts, for providing direction in his studies and teaching philosophy.

After earning his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in computer science from Stanford, Sahami took a break from academia to enter the software industry, where he first worked as a senior engineering manager at Epiphany and then as a senior research scientist at Google.

But industry wasn’t his calling.

“I decided that if the opportunity to come back and teach at Stanford was given, I would take it,” Sahami said.

In 2001, Sahami joined the Stanford computer science department as a lecturer. He held the position until 2006, when he was subsequently made an associate professor as well as the department’s associate chair for teaching.

In 2008, Sahami chaired the committee tasked with revising the curriculum for the computer science major to reflect the evolution of the field, increasing the flexibility and options for students to take as part of the major and promoting more multi-disciplinary work to highlight the connections of computer science to other fields.

Sahami is famed for not only his ebullient style of lecturing, but also for rewarding students who participate in lecture with candy. To say that professor Sahami employs an unorthodox teaching style is an understatement; but, there seems to be a clear method behind it.

“What I try to do with the candy and other techniques are to get and keep the students engaged in what I’m teaching,” Sahami said. “Research shows that when students are actively participating in class they are more likely to retain information that is presented.”

Sahami’s teaching approach is also his method of addressing a common teaching problem present in large lecture classes.

“I am trying to break the invisible wall between myself and the students,” Sahami said. “Unfortunately, [the wall] is what happens in many lecture classes where the professor drones on and the students just receive the information instead of actively processing and thinking.”

Based on student reaction to his teaching, his methods appear to achieve their goals.

“How many professors bring a lightsaber to class?” said David Arnold ’13. “He makes the class very laid back, but we’re still learning.”

“He’s amazing,” added Phil Opamuratawongse ’13. “I’ve never had any teacher as cool as him.”

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