Bryn Mawr Professors Escort Robots to Capitol Hill

Posted November 5th, 2009 at 1:24 pm.

dddcapitolThree Bryn Mawr professors and a few of their favorite mechanical teaching assistants visited Washington, D.C., recently to advise members of Congress on the use of robotics in education.

Bryn Mawr was one of a few institutions invited by the Congressional Bi-Partisan Robotics Caucus to a briefing on robots and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. As partners of the Institute for Personal Robotics in Education (IPRE), co-sponsored with Georgia Tech, Bryn Mawr computer scientists have developed software and curricula that are now used in more than 300 schools.

Associate Professor of Computer Science Douglas Blank, Professor of Computer Science Deepak Kumar, and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Dianna Xu demonstrated “Scribblers,” the turtle-like, wheeled personal robots used in Bryn Mawr introductory computer science courses; Kumar’s introductory computer-science textbook, written to complement the robots; and Bryn Mawr’s mini-humanoid robot, which is used by several advanced students. All of the computers run on a multipurpose software platform developed by Blank, who is IPRE’s director.

The briefing focused primarily on robotics in elementary and secondary education, and the IPRE exhibit hosted not only members of Congress, their staffers, and assorted luminaries from the worlds of high technology and education, but also a number of young robot fanciers from D.C.-area schools.

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Bryn Mawr computer scientist Doug Blank at the IPRE exhibit with D.C.-area students

Blank, Kumar, and Xu have supervised several Bryn Mawr undergraduates who have experimented with using robotics to teach computer science to younger students, including Ashley Gavin ’10, who is teaching a group of students at the Baldwin School through the College’s Praxis Program.

IPRE, now supported by the National Science Foundation, was started with a grant from Microsoft Corporation, which recognized Bryn Mawr’s computer-science department for its role in developing “the nation’s leading educational robotics platform” and for its record of using novel pedagogical approaches to attract women to computer science, thus bucking a national trend.

Computer science has suffered from a precipitous nationwide drop in enrollment since 2000. Declining interest in computer science in the United States is especially acute among women; in fact, it is the only STEM discipline in which the gender gap has actually widened over the last 25 years. IPRE uses robots to pique students’ interest in computer science.

According to IPRE’s founders, using robots to teach basic computer-science concepts helps students see computer science as a discipline focused on creative problem solving. The physical presence of a robot illustrates the discipline’s connection to real-world issues in a way that cold code does not, they argue.

The Bryn Mawr Computer Science Program has been using the IPRE course materials in its introductory course since the fall of 2006, and early indicators support the hypothesis that robotics engages students in computing and retains their interest better than traditional computer-science curricula.

An especially striking statistic is the sharp increase in enrollment in Computer Science 206, the course that follows the introduction to computer science: the number of students taking the course rose from nine in 2006 to 52 this year, while computer-science enrollments nationwide are still in decline. “Our 2009 enrollment is more than 10 times what it was in 2001,” Blank says. “All of our advanced courses have seen increased enrollments.”

Blank appreciated the caucus’ interest in educational robotics. “I was very glad to see our representatives engaged in activities  supporting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) …  I was especially excited to see their appreciation of the use of  educational personal robots towards these ends,” he says.

“I still think we have a  ways to go, though, to let people know that computing is about critical  thinking, general-purpose problem solving, and especially creativity,” Blank continues. “It  really is at the heart of a liberal-arts education. Some still see computing as something that only engineers can do, and we want to chip away at that stereotype.”

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