Robots will soon seek to go where humans have often failed: into the realm of attracting and retaining more computer science students.
Microsoft is announcing today that it will give $1 million to a team of researchers from Bryn Mawr College and the Georgia Institute of Technology to develop “personal robots” for use in introductory computer science classes as part of the creation of the Institute for Personal Robots in Education  at the two colleges.
The robots , which are likely to be slightly larger than a Rubik’s Cube -- equipped with sensors and wheels, of course -- should come shrink-wrapped along with a new textbook that the researchers are developing.
Traditional intro computer science textbooks tend to focus on teaching the nuts and bolts of the technology of the day -- Java, for example, over most of the past decade. The new text will emphasize exercises that employ the robot. For example, students might be told to program their personal robot to go to the brightest spot in a room, or perhaps to follow a line drawn by another robot that dragged a marker across a table, and to do so without falling off the table.
“Our hope is to bring a whole new level of excitement into the teaching of computer science,” said Deepak Kumar, associate professor of computer science at Bryn Mawr.
Introductory computer science classes nationwide have a very high dropout and failure rate -- it’s not uncommon for over one-third of students in an intro course to fail or withdraw -- and faculty members say much of that has to do with a lack of interactive learning.
Bryn Mawr, a women’s college that first had computer science courses in 1987, and only last year started an official computer science major, has been graduating only a few students a year who choose computer science as an “independent major.” For over 10 years, however, the college has been tinkering with using robots in undergraduate education.
Kumar said that a visitor checking out the computer labs might bump into robots -- from hockey-puck size to suitcase and garbage can size – roaming the halls, or even leading them down the halls. “Students designed a robot to give tours,” Kumar said. Additionally, Doug Blank, associate professor of computer science at Bryn Mawr, has been working on writing education software that can be used with robots.
Bryn Mawr’s partner, Georgia Tech, has an entire College of Computing, and about 3,000 students take introductory comp sci each year. “What Georgia Tech brings to the table,” said Tucker Balch, associate professor of interactive and intelligent computing there, “is a strong robotics background” to add to Bryn Mawr’s use of robotics in teaching.
An added benefit of the partnership could be the diverse environments for testing new strategies. The researchers expect to have pilot programs by next spring in classrooms small and large at both Bryn Mawr and Georgia Tech, as well as at the University of Georgia and Georgia State University, an institution that serves a large minority population.
Kumar highlighted the fact that the number of women going into computer science is trending from bad to worse, and that pilot robot programs at Bryn Mawr will help develop strategies that can attract women to computer science nationwide. Ultimately, the researchers want to create using personal robots that can easily be used even at institutions without a lot of money for robotics and computer labs.
Intro comp sci textbooks run about $100, and Kumar said that the team wants to keep the book-plus-robot combo in that range, so that all a faculty member has to do is tell the bookstore to stock the book.
One of the ways that the researchers intend to keep the robot, which students get to keep, cheap, is by leaving the real hardware to the students’ personal computers. “We’re going to have very little computing on the robot itself,” Balch said. New software that the team will design will allow a student’s computer to “reads its sensors and sends motor commands. The robot will be low cost, and we get the computing power of the desktop or laptop.”
Balch said that Georgia Tech currently has three different styles of intro computer science courses, two of which are relatively traditional, and one of which uses various media to engage students. For example, students might be asked to take a photograph and then write a program that will display all the pixels with a greenish tint. “The media based course is doing by far the best in terms of retention and grades,” Balch said, “and they come away knowing the same basic concepts” as the more traditional courses. “You also see a much higher proportion of women in that class.”
Kumar added that the personal robot project is a step toward ripping down barriers that keep some people from studying computer science. “The perception is that computer science is this hardcore programming discipline that only geek types can do,” he said. “That really takes away a lot of students. This is just one way we think we are trying to combat that.”