2015 Press Releases

A quiet revolution: UCC to honour education stars

2 Nov 2015
American computing pioneer Donald Knuth; Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX; Sr Mercedes Desmond, who has championed science education in Ireland for over 60 years; and Desmond MacHale, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at UCC, were awarded honorary doctorates on George Boole Day, November 2. Photo: Michael McSweeney/Provision

The CEO of a non-profit aiming to educate a billion people around the world for free is among those set to awarded honorary doctorates by University College Cork (UCC) on November 2.

Online education for students across the globe is the single biggest shake-up in education since the printing press, according to Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, a massive open online course (MOOC) provider founded by Harvard and MIT, which offers free classes from top universities to anyone in the world.

Named in Forbes’ list of top 15 education innovators, Agarwal taught the first edX course on circuits and electronics from MIT, which attracted 155,000 students from 162 countries.

A successful serial entrepreneur and winner of MIT's Smullin and Jamieson prizes for teaching, Agarwal has served as the director of CSAIL, MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.

Scientific American selected Agarwal’s work on organic computing as one of 10 World-Changing Ideas and he holds the Guinness World Record for the largest microphone array.

Entire countries have adopted the open source platform Open edX, allowing anyone to use its infrastructure to launch their own massive open online courses (MOOCs), including France, China and Saudi Arabia. Currently, edX has more than five million students from every country around the world.

American computing pioneer Donald Knuth, known for his greatly influential multi-volume work The Art of Computer Programming – over a million copies have been sold – and quirky sense of humour, will also be conferred with a Doctor of Science.

American Scientist included The Art of Computer Programming among ‘100 or so Books that shaped a [20th] Century of Science’ and The New York Times referred to it as “the profession's defining treatise.”

Bill Gates is quoted on the cover of third edition of Volume 1: "If you think you're a really good programmer... read (Knuth's) Art of Computer Programming... You should definitely send me a résumé if you can read the whole thing."

My Advice to Young People, a YouTube video in which Knuth encourages them to follow their instincts, rather than the herd, has racked up over 230,000 views.

Widely considered the father of the analysis of algorithms, while in the eighth grade at school Knuth found over 4500 words in a contest to use the letters in ‘Ziegler's Giant Bar’.

Speaking ahead of November 2 – the bicentenary of George Boole’s birth, Knuth said: “George Boole's 200th birthday is especially important to me because I've used his name more than 700 times in my books on The Art of Computer Programming, as well as 150 times in other books.”

“In most cases, of course, I've been discussing "Boolean" this or "Boolean" that, based on concepts named after him. But there also are more than a dozen instances where I have referred directly to George Boole himself. I share his great love for using algebra to understand complex ideas.”

Desmond MacHale, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at UCC, has been teaching for over 40 years at UCC. “Working with wonderful students and having a great relationship with his colleagues has been “precious,” he said.

A prolific author, he wrote the first biography of George Boole; one of the most influential intellectuals of his era and one of the great unsung architects of the technology we enjoy today.

He started working on The Life and Work of George Boole: A Prelude to the Digital Age in 1974 and the new edition was published last year.

Originally from Castlebar and now living in Blackrock, Cork, MacHale’s first publication was The Book of Kerryman Jokes in 1976. He has since written over 40 books on humour, four books on the John Ford-directed 1952 film The Quiet Man, and merged humour and mathematics with books of lateral thinking puzzles.

MacHale founded the Irish Association of Non-Smokers, spending 25 years as a counsellor helping people to quit cigarettes. “I’d like to think we saved thousands of lives doing that.”

On the significance of receiving his honorary doctorate on November 2, the bicentenary of George Boole’s birth, Professor MacHale said: “The world has finally come to realise the genius of George Boole internationally and the United Nations’ declaration this year was a major achievement. Everyone in the world now has heard about George Boole and his link with Cork; he produced some of his greatest work here.”

MacHale, who will receive a Degree of Doctor of Literature, said he will dedicate the reception of the degree to everyone in the George Boole 200 team at UCC. “It has been a tremendous achievement with unity of purpose.”

Sr Mercedes Desmond, now 93, has championed science education in Ireland for over 60 years.

Born in Donoughmore, Co. Cork, Sr Mercedes was professed as a Sister of Mercy in 1944 and despite having never studied science at secondary school, she enrolled to study Physics at UCC in 1945. In addition, she studied astronomy, which spurred a lifelong interest in the subject. She also studied chemistry and, due to the daytime rationing of gas during World War II, carried out practical work in Chemistry at night in the old science building (now Civil Engineering) in UCC.

After graduating with a B.Sc. in Physics and Chemistry, and later a HDip in Education, Sr Mercedes was assigned to St. Aloysius School in Cork city in 1949, where she taught Physics, Chemistry and Maths, as well as Physiology until the introduction of biology as a subject on the curriculum. After her appointment as principal of the school in 1978, enrolment rose to 1200 students, becoming the largest all-girls secondary school in Ireland.

In 1962 Sr Mercedes, along with a small group of others, founded the Irish Science Teachers’ Association (ISTA). Sr Mercedes immersed herself in science education at local and national level, organising courses for science teachers, from glass-blowing and electronics to ecology and astronomy. She will be conferred with a Degree of Doctor of Education.

Widely esteemed for her humility, Sr Mercedes’ commitment to science education has made a massive impact on standards across Ireland and beyond. 


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