UD computer science students create teaching aids
Twelve University of Delaware students, below, spent Winter Session developing teaching aids as part of the One Laptop per Child program.
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7:56 a.m., Feb. 12, 2009----During the recently completed Winter Session, 12 University of Delaware students endeavored to build on their expertise and knowledge in computer science to help both students at UD and children around the world to engage in learning.

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Nationwide, the number of computer science majors is falling even as the demand increases faster than in most fields.

This is leading people like Lori Pollock, professor, and Terry Harvey, assistant professor, both in the University of Delaware's Department of Computer and Information Sciences, to explore ways to increase enrollment and retention rates for computer science courses.

This fast-track Winter Session course was designed partly as a way to explore how students would respond to new teaching methods and materials, partly to explore the challenges of incorporating robots into introductory computer sciences courses, and partly to initiate UD involvement in the One Laptop per Child program.

Guided by Pollock and Harvey, three teams of four students spent Winter Session collaboratively problem solving how to manipulate Myro robots and how to create learning games for young children who have received an XO laptop from the One Laptop per Child program.

While the laptops and Myro robots appear to be very different platforms for learning, they share a common programming language called Python. Students devoted the first week to teaching each other the major features of Python.

Then they moved on to design and develop their own Python programs to make Myro robots hide in the dark, mimic a bull following a red cape, play “Star Wars” music, change direction like a remote controlled robot, and finally chase each other across the room.

The Institute for Personal Robotics Education (IPRE) provided six Myro educational robots for the course. The robots are ideal for college classes because they are small and light enough that students can take them home and work with them.

Each robot has a variety of sensors, including a color camera, and communicates with student laptop computers via a wireless Bluetooth connection. The robot "thinking" happens on the laptop, which processes sensor data, sends movement commands to the Myro, and then receives new sensor data in return.

Robot course experience at Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr College indicated that their students are more motivated by writing programs that can make a robot perform a task, or even sing and dance. The UD students appear to agree; written feedback to their professors included:

"Having the visual/aural feedback of the robot makes the programming experience a lot more fun, and even easier -- which is a big plus for generating interest in new students."

"Definitely enjoyed making the new application. We were all really excited to see the robot react to the light it sensed, and head for the darkest spot."

"I didn't realize I'd have so much fun with the robot at first though, but it's really exciting and I think it's a good idea to get people interested in computer science."

"Programming the [robot] demos and creating our own was a lot of fun. "

Founded by Nicholas Negroponte, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 2002, the One Laptop per Child program has the mission “to create educational opportunities for the world's poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning.”

His vision led to the creation of the One Laptop per Child Foundation and the XO laptop designed for children living in remote environments, featuring small textbook size, built-in wireless, screen readable in direct sunlight, extremely durable, energy-efficient.

In addition to donating a laptop or participating in a deployment site, another key way to participate is to develop new games and learning software for children.

The UD students quickly learned that programming and debugging on a machine with a keyboard meant for small children's hands was inefficient and frustrating. Instead, they found emulators for their own laptops, and then ported their completed programs to become “activities” on the XO laptop.

The students found limited documentation on the Internet for creating XO activities that take advantage of the networking capabilities for collaborative learning games across several XO laptops. Nonetheless, each team succeeded in developing a working version of a learning game in which two or more children on different XO laptops could play and learn together on the same game.

One team created a game modeled after Whack-a-Mole where the players practice their multiples in a fun way, whacking the mole that is a multiple of the current number being learned.

Another team developed a Jeopardy!-like game where players on different XO laptops choose and answer questions in different categories for different point values. The third team modeled their game after the Apples 2 Apples card game, with a Spanish version for at least three children to match the most appropriate noun with the given adjective.

The students plan to share their finished products with the One Laptop per Child community by contributing their learning game activities to the organization's activities repository. The developer community is strongly based in free and open software.

Students and faculty are also interested in continuing the One Laptop per Child development and investigating the participation of UD students in XO laptop deployment sites, working with teachers to develop games to enhance their students' learning.