Friday, October 3, 2008

GHC: Using Robots to Introduce Computer Programming to Middle Schools

This talk was given as part of the same session as the Artemis project and had many of the same themes. This time, the course focused on teaching how to program a robot and, I believe, ran for a couple of hours once a week for eight weeks. The goals were to expose kids to programming, present computing in an interesting way, and show that women could indeed work well with technology.

The course used a Scribbler robot for its cost effectiveness and robustness. It was developed at Georgia Tech and has a camera and Bluetooth. You can also stick a pen into it so that when you command it to move a certain way, it will draw pictures. An interactive Python shell could be used to enter commands for the robot to move.

The enrolment for this course ended up being almost all boys -- there was just one girl in the end. However, this one girl ended up being so good that the boys completely changed their mind about whether girls could "do" technology. Also, the students were younger than most outreach programs accept (7-13 years old), but the ideas should be adaptable to many situations.

Here's some of the advice given for this part of the session.
  • Kids like to explore, so give them an adventure. They robots can go on a mission to find certain things to take pictures of, like planets in a mock solar system.
  • Be sure to take time to interact with students one on one, especially with the younger children.
  • Present computing as a medium for creativity and see what they come up with.
  • Be innovative. When presenting the concept of variables, for example, Mad Libs were used.
  • Give them something to work with, like basic code snippets.
  • Abstract harder concepts, like loops, with more useful code snippets.
Although the undergraduate instructors of this course complained about problems with the robots, having way more boys than girls, and no prior teaching experience, it sounds to me like the course was a success both for the teachers and the students.


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