August 8, 2008 Education has long been based around the three R's, but now for computer science students throughout the U.S., a fourth R is making ground - Robotics. A program that began in 2006 through the Institute for Personal Robots in Education (IPRE) using robots as the circuit breaker in introductory computer science courses is being expanded to 28 more high schools and universities. The grants give access to a share of $250,000 along with the tools that form the basis of the scheme: a book sized robot called Scribbler and its Bluetooth enabled add-on board known as Fluke, plus IPRE software and class text. Gizmag spoke to Dr. Tucker Balch, director of IPRE and professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Tech College of Computing, to learn more.

IPRE is a partnership between Georgia Tech College of Computing, Bryn Mawr College and Microsoft Research that was founded in 2006 with the aim of addressing declining interest in science and technology generally - and CS in particular - by providing a tangible, compelling focus for what is often perceived by students to be dry subject matter.


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At Georgia Tech, where introductory computer science is compulsory the problem became apparent much earlier. "We began looking at this problem in 2001 when failure rates for the introductory course were as high as 50%," said Dr. Balch. "The first solution was to teach CS with media as the focus point to add interest, as opposed to just teaching code. This proved successful and the idea to use robotics as the context for engaging students in the classroom grew from this."

The program has three key goals - reinvigorating and attracting student interest, retaining students in related fields and more effectively teaching computer science subject matter. Whilst Dr. Balch notes that tracking the success and flow through effectiveness of the program is an ongoing process, the results to date have show that the use of robots has been a drawcard. According to IPRE's latest press release, the more than 400 students who enrolled in the robotics-based courses at Georgia Tech in fall 2007 showed a higher pass rate than the traditional programming course. At Bryn Mawr liberal arts college for women, where IPRE is associated with the Computer Science Department, the approach has also proved successful. Enrollment in upper level Computer Science classes has more than quadrupled since the robot became part of the introductory course.

Although not aimed purely at robotics as a stand-alone discipline, Dr. Balch says that the program is a potential funnel into robotics course as well as computer science more generally. It's also of benefit to students majoring in other areas. "There has been positive feedback from the engineering department at Georgia Tech," said Dr. Balch. "For engineering students, the physical grounding of this approach in the introductory course is of great benefit."

The robot in question is a the book sized Scribbler basically a platform with three wheels, two motors and a speaker. The key component however is the Bluetooth enabled "Fluke" circuit board which plugs into a serial port on the Scribbler. With the Fluke added, the Scribbler becomes a wireless Bluetooth robot with a built in color camera and 3 infrared obstacle detectors. This allows the robot to act like a computer peripheral (such as a printer) so it can be programed with the IPRE firmware and controlled by students from their computers.

Any school can buy the enhanced Scribblers used at Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr College which cost around US$150, and costs will be brought down further by future versions of the robot. "At the moment Fluke has 90% of what a robot needs without the mobility," said Dr. Balch. "Future versions of the system will be based on an upgraded version of the Fluke to which extra circuits and wheels are added. By hijacking the wheels of the Scribbler we will be able to produce a tool that can do the same job at a lower cost per unit."

The awards granted this week were the result of a gift from Microsoft Research. Winning schools were required to show goals in line with IPRE's mission. The the technical quality of the proposed program and the potential to encourage students in groups that are not traditionally well represented in computing were also taken onto account.

The award winners are: Arkansas Tech University, Austin College, Brooklyn College, Canisius College, Fayetteville State University, Florida Virtual School, Georgia State University, Haddonfield Memorial High School, Hammond School, Harvey Mudd College, Indiana University, Ithaca College, Olin University, Park University, Phillips Exeter Academy, Presbyterian College, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rollins College, Rowan University, St. Xavier University, Stetson University, Tecnologico de Monterrey, Texas Tech University, University of Delaware, University of Georgia, University of Minnesota – Morris, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities and University of Tennessee.

Fifty-five universities, colleges and high schools in the U.S. and elsewhere applied for the funding. Winners can adopt the same curricula, software and text developed by IPRE adapt their own. Coupled with the flexibility offered by the open source nature of the program, which can be tweaked to meet the needs of different institutions, this makes further expansion a very feasible prospect.

With robots set to play an ever increasing role in society in coming years, there can be no doubt about the merit of IPRE's approach. In regard to the future of the robotics industry generally, Dr. Balch believes that the widely predicted "explosion" is already upon as in subtle ways, citing the success of Roomba as a prime example. "All-purpose robots that cook and clean are not what we will see emerging," said Dr. Balch. "With cost the key factor, the main markets in the immediate future will be the military, where both the dollar savings and protection of human life provide a major impetus, along with healthcare, in particular technologies that assist the elderly to stay at home longer."

For more information see the IPRE site.

Noel McKeegan

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