Bryn Mawr undergrads test robotics approach with a younger crowd of students

Posted May 15th, 2008 at 12:14 pm.

Benjamin Litwack tests his Scribbler in a maze

In the summer of 2006, Bryn Mawr computer-science professors Doug Blank and Deepak Kumar and colleagues at Georgia Tech formed the Institute for Personal Robots in Education and designed an innovative introductory computer-science course featuring tiny "Scribbler" robots that were given to each student in the class to help bring the course’;s concepts to life.

The course has been such a hit since its introduction that a few of Blank and Kumar’s students thought that robots might also be effective in getting younger students interested in computer science.

Last May, Bryn Mawr students Mansi Gupta ’10, Marwa Nur Muhammad ’09, and Shikha Prashad ’09, with Blank as their adviser, applied for funding through the Computer Research Association’s Collaborative Research Experience for Undergraduates program to create a course that would expose middle-school students to computing in a fun way through the Scribbler robots.

“Mansi, Marwa, and Shikha did an amazing amount of work. They proposed the project, got it funded, designed the materials, and finally spent hours with the middle-school kids every week. They have established that our IPRE materials can be effective and engaging for even the smallest computer scientists,” said Blank.

The Bryn Mawr students originally planned to network with local schools to find interested students, but a chance encounter at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute between Blank and Kathleen McAllister, of Broomall, Pa., and her home-schooled son Graham resulted in the recruitment of a class of home-schooled children.

“It was robotics day at the Franklin Institute and I could tell by the way Doug interacted with his own children that he knew how to interest kids in the material. We got to talking and he told me about this course they were creating and it grew from there,” said McAllister.

McAllister got the word out to other area home-schoolers, and by January a class of 15 students, age seven to 13, were ready to go.

“We wanted to get students between the age of 10 and 12 mainly, but when Kathleen let the home-schooled students in the area know, some of the very interested students happened to be younger,” said the Bryn Mawr students who developed the course.

“Instead of not allowing the younger, enthusiastic students to take the class, we tried to modify the course documents and lectures so that they, too, could be part of it. It all worked out great,” they added.

The Bryn Mawr student researchers were hoping to get a close to equal representation of boys and girls to test whether the Scribblers would have greater appeal for either sex. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to answer this question, as only two girls ended up participating in the class.

During class the students would work on creating programs that would allow their Scribblers to draw geometric designs, do choreographed dances, navigate mazes, and even play music.

“The only trouble the young student group had was their typing ability,” said McAllister as she watched her son work at a computer on the last day of class.

“They love it,” said Nancy Gauntlett, whose eight-year-old twins Gregory and Daniel attended the class. “I’ve been surprised at how much they’ve learned and can do at their age. Now they want to turn their Legos into robots.”

On the last day of class 12-year-old Stephen Quick and Benjamin Litwack, 13, were trying to program their robots to make their way through an elaborate maze that the instructors had created in the IPRE lab.

“I’ve done some programming in a different language, but this was interesting because you can instantly see if what you’ve done works,” Litwack said as he placed his Scribbler in the maze.

Gupta, Muhammad, and Prashad say they’ve received a very positive response from both the parents and the students enrolled in the course and plan to offer it again next semester, when they hope to recruit more girls by reaching out to both home-schooled and traditional students from area schools.

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