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ERIC Number: EJ771749
Record Type: Journal
Publication Date: 2007-Jun-1
Pages: 1
Abstractor: ERIC
Reference Count: N/A
ISSN: ISSN-0009-5982
Robots to the Rescue
Fischman, Josh
Chronicle of Higher Education, v53 n39 pA29 Jun 2007
Enrollment in undergraduate computer-science programs has dipped all over the country, and among women it has almost vanished, dropping 70 percent between 2000 and 2005. Observers cite different reasons for the drop, including the dot-com bust a few years ago is one, but universities are beginning to agree on one cause that is within their control: Computer-science courses are boring. Enter the robots, small machines called Scribblers. As part of a joint project at Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr College this past semester, students received the robots on the first day of introductory classes and, by writing 14 lines of code, got them to move. "The idea is to convey key components of computing, like control over the machine," says Tucker Balch, associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology's College of Computing. "It's very practical, and students see immediate results." As a first task, students had to program their Scribbler to draw squares. The project called for them to string together a set of instructions: Go straight for a few feet, turn 90 degrees, repeat four times. That's a programming loop, a key concept. (They also learned the important lesson that robots are not perfect. A Scribbler has no compass and cannot make a precise 90-degree turn.) To learn another key concept, "conditional control flow," they had to direct the robot to follow a light -- Scribblers have light sensors -- by telling it to move in the light's direction. The idea to use robots grew out of Georgia Tech's unsuccessful effort in the late 1990s to get every student to take computer science. "We ran into a big problem: a 30-percent withdraw, D, or fail rate," says Balch. The intro courses were turning students off. So Tech started another course using video and audio. "We taught students to create images and sounds by programming. They got it, and they liked it. Our W/D/F rate dropped to 16 percent." Robots seemed like another appealing teaching tool, but are not the only way todraw students to computer science. Reconsidering admissions requirements does not take unusual effort or significant financial commitment: Carnegie Mellon University increased women's enrollment in computer science from 7 percent to 40 percent in just a few years by dropping the prerequisite that students already have programming experience and by starting a mentorship program, using upperclassmen. For students at Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr, however, the robot project is exciting. Both schools intend to compare results of their courses with similar courses taught without robots, but the test scores and other benchmarks are not in yet. There are, however, some other hopeful signs emerging. Bryn Mawr students spent time outside of class programming their robots to dance, something that Balch says they would not have done if they were not enjoying it. They also noted in end-of-semester questionnaires that they had learned problem solving, another course goal.
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Publication Type: Journal Articles; Reports - Descriptive
Education Level: Higher Education
Audience: N/A
Language: English
Sponsor: N/A
Authoring Institution: N/A
Identifiers - Location: Georgia