Starbucks, GWAP, and Juicy Couture

Heroes star Zachary Quinto is a School of Drama alumnus. (credit: Celia Ludwinski | Assistant Photo Editor) Heroes star Zachary Quinto is a School of Drama alumnus. (credit: Celia Ludwinski | Assistant Photo Editor) Credit: Maria Raffaele | Assistant Art Editor Credit: Maria Raffaele | Assistant Art Editor

Not everyone is aware that a little piece of Carnegie Mellon is sitting on most of the working world’s desk at this very moment, and it comes in the form of a coffee cup. The logo of Starbucks is designed by Carnegie Mellon alumnus Terry Heckler, who graduated in the class of 1964 with a major in art. He is also the creator of the brand logos for JanSport, New Balance, and the Qdoba restaurant chain.

Carnegie Mellon alumni have made numerous contributions in the realms of design, computers, film, and beyond — and continue to make an impact as we speak — we just don’t always hear about it. The new virtual “Brag Book” cmu.edu/brag compiles accomplishments of everything Carnegie Mellon, all in one place, and makes bragging about the university as easy as the click of a mouse. Although most of the alumni featured on the page have relocated elsewhere in the world, I caught up with Luis von Ahn and Kenneth Koedinger, both of whom hold doctorates from Carnegie Mellon and teach on campus.

Von Ahn completed his dissertation at Carnegie Mellon in 2005 and has been named one of the “50 Best Brains in Science” by Discover Magazine and one of Popular Science magazine’s “Brilliant 10.” He is credited for developing CAPTCHAs (Completely Automatic Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart), as well as GWAPs (Games With A Purpose). CAPTCHAs are the squiggly letters one must decipher in order to access a website so that the webpage is able to distinguish a human from a computer, a test that has helped sites like Ticketmaster.com prevent scalpers from purchasing tickets in bulk and reselling them at a higher price.

It was on a flight that von Ahn first came up with the idea of a GWAP. As everyone in his row sat idly solving a crossword puzzle, von Ahn remembers thinking, “Wouldn’t it be more useful to use this time for something else?” The notion of playing a game that was purposeful — such as one that would, like “Google Image Labeler,” help search engines better identify images — was born. Two players, unable to communicate, must choose a word to describe a picture and continue playing until both agree upon a single descriptive noun in order to win points. The game can be played at images.google.com/imagelabeler.

Koedinger, a professor within the Human Computer Interaction Institute and the director of the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center, develops “cognitive tutoring” models that identify why and how students who are able to learn quickly are able to do so. These computer programs are distributed and used by teachers nationwide in order to help those students falling behind in science, math, or language make a quick turnaround in their studies when a human tutor is not readily available. Carnegie Learning, Inc. has aided over 2600 schools and 500,000 students across the nation.

Koedinger received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Carnegie Mellon and remembers feeling “like a kid in a candy store” upon realizing that the professors whose articles he had read and cited while a student at the University of Wisconsin were all on the same campus here at Carnegie Mellon. Koedinger notes that Carnegie Learning, Inc., which spans psychology, computer science, and communications, was successfully launched in our university’s climate of interdisciplinary studies.

H&SS graduate and co-author of Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, Jeffrey Zaslow is a writer for the Wall Street Journal’s column “Moving On.” Zaslow, who majored in creative writing, wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times after winning a spot in a competition among 12,000 journalists.

And anyone who caught this summer’s Star Trek would have seen a Tartan on the big screen in the role of Spock. Zachary Quinto, who is also a lead in the hit TV drama Heroes, is a Pittsburgh native and graduated from the School of Drama in 1999. Also hailing from the School of Drama is Stephen Shwartz, the person who wrote the music for the Academy Award-winning Disney movie Enchanted and also worked on the music for the film Pocahontas and the Broadway musical Wicked. His first musical, Pippin!, was performed by student theater group Scotch’n’Soda before becoming a hit on the Great White Way.

Other notable alumni include one of the co-founders of Juicy Couture, Gela Nash-Taylor, who graduated with a major in acting from the School of Drama in 1978. She started the now internationally known brand in 1997 with business partner Pam Skaist-Levy and just $200 of their own money. The line originated as maternity jeans and grew into an international success that projects sales at $200 million this year. The Juicy Couture sweat suit is also the only contemporary outfit featured within the permanent fashion exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, making the talent of a Carnegie Mellon graduate the representation for an entire generation of clothing.

The brag book is not limited to alumni but also includes achievements on campus, such as the fact that Carnegie Mellon was the first university to be truly “connected,” or wireless. Stever House, built in 2003, is the first all-green dormitory to be included on a United States college campus. Carnegie Mellon is the only university to house Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Intel under one roof within the “Collaborative Innovation Center.” Four years pass quickly, but a connection to Carnegie Mellon lasts a lifetime.