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26 May 2007 09:18
The lesson plan is called “Artificial Unintelligence”, but it is written more like a comic book than a syllabus for a serious computer-science class.
“Singing, dancing and drawing polygons may be nifty, but any self-respecting evil roboticist needs a few more tricks in the repertoire if they are going to take over the world,” read the day’s instructions to a dozen or so Georgia Tech robotics students.
They have spent the past few months teaching their personal “Scribbler” robots to draw shapes and chirp on command. Now they are being asked to navigate a daunting obstacle course of Girl Scout cookie boxes scattered over a grid.
The course is aimed at reigniting interest in computer science among undergraduates.
Educators at Georgia Tech and elsewhere are turning to innovative programs like the Scribbler to draw more students to the field and reverse the tide of those leaving it.
At risk, professors say, is nothing less than United States technology supremacy. As interest in computer science drops in the US, India and China are emerging as engineering hubs with cheap labour and a skilled work force.
Schools across the country are taking steps to broaden the appeal of the major. More than a dozen universities have adopted “media computation” programmes, a sort of alternate introduction to computer science with a new-media vibe. The classes, which have been launched at schools from the University of San Francisco to Virginia Tech, teach basic engineering using digital art, digital music and the web.
Others are turning to niche fields to attract more students. The California Institute of Technology, which has seen a slight drop in undergraduate computer science majors, has more than made up for the losses by emphasising the field of bioengineering.
“Many of our computer-science faculty work on subjects related to biology, and so this new thrust works well for us,” said Joel Burdick, a Caltech bioengineering professor.
At Georgia Tech, computing professor Tucker Balch says the brain drain is partly the fault of what he calls the “prime number” syndrome.
It’s the traditional way to teach computer-science students by asking them to write programs that spit out prime numbers, the Fibonacci sequence or other mathematical series.
It’s proven a sound way to educate students dead-set on joining the ranks of computer programmers, but it’s also probably scared away more than a few.
That’s why Balch, who oversees the robotics class, is optimistic about the Scribbler, a scrappy blue robot cheap enough for students to buy and take home each night after class but versatile enough to handle fairly complex programs.
The key to the class is the design of the robot. It weighs about a pound and is slightly smaller than a Frisbee, sporting three light-detecting sensors and a speaker that can chirp. And at about $75, it’s roughly the price of a science textbook.
The class centres on twice-weekly lectures, but the real excitement is in the weekly breakout session. That’s where teaching assistants outline their cheeky lesson plans and instruct students how to use commands like turnLeft() and sense() to navigate their Scribblers around makeshift obstacle courses.
Students aren’t just teaching the Scribblers how to move; they’re teaching them how to dance, draw and create music—a sort of artistic dynamo.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Ami Shah (21), a senior biology major. “I’ve learned a lot from this class, and I think it’s a really handy skill.”
Professors are planning to expand the class from about 30 students to more than 200 next semester and are exporting the class to two other Georgia schools in the fall.
Georgia Tech, which has branded the robot the “new face of computing”, is hoping that the class can be a new national model to teach students computing. To Microsoft, which is investing $1-million to jump-start the programme at Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr, it’s investment in what could become its work force. Outside groups have applauded the effort, too.
“In fact, computing is a tool that can be used for virtually every application—from entertainment to medicine,” said Virginia Gold, of the Association for Computing Machinery. “And the Scribbler helps show how pervasive computers are in everything.”
The computing industry has a reason to be concerned about the future.
The number of new computer-science majors has steadily declined since 2000, falling from close to 16 000 students to only 7 798 in fall 2006, according to the Computing Research Association.
And the downward trend isn’t expected to reverse soon. The association says about 1% of incoming freshmen have indicated computer science as a probable major, a 70% drop from the rate in 2000.
The aftermath of the dot-com bust may have triggered the exodus, but computer scientists admit they have also been slow to adapt to the changes by reprogramming their teaching methods.
Although the Scribbler is one of several methods to lure more students to the field, its popularity has been surprising. About 30 schools have already expressed interest in the course, said Deepak Kumar, the chairperson of Bryn Mawr’s computer-science department.
“It’s fresh and new and engaging,” said Kumar, who teaches a class of 24 Scribbler-wielding students. “We’ve got our fingers on one way to solve the problem.”
Balch, who is watching the students from the corner of the classroom, is happy to agree. “It beats prime numbers.”—Sapa-AP
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