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After school in Pittsburgh, sixth- through 12th-graders spend three hours in the TechGYRLS program. They finish their homework, eat a snack and then start applying the math concepts they studied in class.
With Carnegie Mellon curriculum, the girls make robots move, navigate around objects and even dance, said Monique McIntosh, director of teen services for YWCA Greater Pittsburgh, which offers the TechGYRLS program. The students enjoy doing hands-on activities that allow them to be creative, and by using the robotics curriculum, they've improved their math and science grades.
Carnegie Mellon has created a comprehensive strategy to engage students in computer science through a four-year, $7 million initiative. And now, the kids will program robots in virtual worlds and do other activities with new robotics tools.
“I’m excited because the girls will have an opportunity to look at computer science or explore computer science in more than one way,” McIntosh said.
Computer science affects everyone's lives, said Robin Shoop, director of the new Fostering Innovation through Robotics Exploration (FIRE) project and the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy.
On May 6, a large stock trading volume might have triggered a major trader's computer algorithm to execute a bigger sell order than it normally does, according to a Wall Street Journal story. As a result, the Dow Jones Industrial Average crashed nearly 1,000 points, but recovered within 30 minutes.
|Sponsor: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)|
|Joint effort: Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy, Carnegie Mellon University, University of PIttsburgh|
|Informal education networks
4-H, Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, YWCA, YMCA
|Formal education networks
Home schools, middle schools, high schools, career and technical centers, community colleges, colleges
FIRST, VEX Robotics Competition, BEST, National Robotics Challenge, Technology Student Association, Robofest
In other industries, workers use computer science to program smart systems, including autopilot electronic flight controls, red light cameras, heart monitors, mobile phones and airport traffic controls.
But schools don't really address computer science, Shoop said. That's why the FIRE project is stepping up efforts to educate students.
"If we want to have future innovators, we need to get a larger pool of people who are playing with the toys that lead to innovation,” Shoop said.
The computer science industry faces a major worker shortage, and to fill that pipeline, the project is getting kids excited about these careers through robots, Shoop said. The FIRE project includes partners such as the University of Pittsburgh, Boy Scouts of America and FIRST.
Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh are working on a number of activities for this project over the next four years. They will:
“Programming the robots is such a small part of computer science, but it does at least get kids engaged, and that’s what we’re hoping to do," Shoop said.
And the FIRE project will keep more kids engaged in a variety of activities, not just the Alice project or the FIRST LEGO League competition, said Christian Schunn, associate professor of psychology, learning sciences and intelligent systems at the University of Pittsburgh. If the kids move through all the computer science activities, they will make connections between the different pieces of computer science that they're learning. The partners hope that 80 to 90 percent of the kids will go through each activity.
With the existing curriculum, students learn the math principles they need to program robots. But some of them use a guess-and-check method to program robots instead of applying math principles.
“The kids often found very clever ways of doing the robotics without actually using any of the math,” Schunn said.
With the new curriculum, they will have to use math principles. For example, if competitors program robots to do synchronized dances, they have to account for the different sizes of the robots.
When a student programs the robots to move forward three turns, the ones with the bigger wheels will go forward further. Using proportional reasoning, the student will figure out how much bigger the larger robots' wheels are and how they can adjust the turn size so all of them will move in sync, said Ken Koedinger, professor of human computer interaction and psychology at Carnegie Mellon.
When students don't understand how to solve problems using math concepts, they can access an automated cognitive tutor online. The tutor helps them fill in the learning gaps that some robotics coaches can't fill because they lack the pedagogical training of math or computer science teachers.
The software will provide custom one-on-one instruction by detecting the strategies the students use and the misconceptions they have. In the previous example, students might think that if the big wheel is 2 inches larger than the smaller one, they need to subtract two from the number of terms. But they actually need to multiply, not subtract.
“There are many ways in which students think about proportional reasoning," Koedinger said. "And part of what makes a cognitive tutor cognitive is to understand those specifics about student thinking or student cognition and be able to build a tutoring system that’s going to react to the informal or alternative strategies that they bring, as well as their possible misconceptions."
The cognitive tutors help students correct their misconceptions and master steps before they move on. They also show them how they're doing as they go along.
“We’ve learned through cognitive science that immediate feedback is important," Schunn said, "that having kids be lost for long periods of time is really wasting their time.”
And they also learn better when they understand the mechanisms behind the math. If students want a robot to go 18 centimeters, they need to multiply 3.5 times the number of rotations. But in addition to knowing the rule, they also need to understand that because of the wheel size, the number of rotations relates to distance and involves so much of a turn.
Back in the TechGYRLS program, students used the skills they learned through the robotics curriculum to create their own competition. Last December, they built a Winter Wonderland maze complete with obstacles including icebergs. The girls navigated their robots through the maze to the ski lodge at the end, where they ate cookies and drank hot chocolate.
And they programmed the robots by applying the math concepts they learned rather than guessing.
"They had to use mathematical concepts in order to navigate the robot through the maze," McIntosh said. "They loved it because this was something they created on their own.”
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