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Carnegie Mellon Invents Robot Moves To Boost Science, Technology Majors

A push to inspire kids to pursue careers in computers science and other technology and science areas is getting a four-year, $7 million boost at Carnegie Mellon University. The Pittsburgh institution is launching a new multi-front initiative called Fostering Innovation through Robotics Exploration (FIRE), intended to leverage students' interest in robots and other forms of "hard fun."

The funding, from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), will be used to develop new tools that enable middle school and high school students to expand their interest in robots, leading them from one activity to the next. Tools might consist of game-like virtual worlds where robot programs can be tested or computerized tutors that teach mathematics and computer science in the context of robotics.

The program will target robotic competitions such as FIRST, VEX, and Robofest, which are popular among secondary school students; it will also offer new types of challenges by creating new competitions for autonomous, multi-robot teams and computer animations. To reach more students, FIRE will attempt to team up with national organizations such as the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, 4H, and the Boys Club and Girls Club of America.

"The idea is that these programs must be rigorous, but fun--what we call 'hard fun,'" said Robin Shoop, director of FIRE and of Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Academy, which develops K-12 robotic education curriculum. "Robots provide a great teaching tool. Kids like robots and are innately curious about how they work and how they make decisions. Finding answers to their questions is fun, but technically challenging, and that makes robotics uniquely suited to teaching students computer science, engineering, and mathematics."

Among the participants will be Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, which will develop automated tutoring systems for teaching Robotics Academy courses. "Cognitive tutors" developed at Carnegie Mellon are currently used in other subjects to present lessons and problem sets, provide guidance with complex problem-solving, and adjust the lessons to each student's comprehension level. FIRE's computer tutors will assist teachers and mentors who coach in robot competitions but may lack the mathematics and programming background necessary to help students tackle increasingly harder challenges.

The Alice Project, which has a 3D programming environment for creating animation, will work with FIRE to create a competition specifically to attract girls. The Alice team will work with the Robotics Academy to add virtual worlds to ROBOTC, another programming language that works with many of the robotic platforms used in the robotics competitions. That new functionality would let students design and test robots virtually without having access to the physical robot.

Another group will work on creating new tools and a new competition for teams of robots working together. A fourth effort will work with FIRE to increase participation in a competition in which high school students solve linguistic problems. The International Linguistics Olympiad is popular in Europe; FIRE's goal is to make it accessible to United States students through participation in the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad.

"Tens of thousands of students nationwide participate in robotic activities every year, but these activities do not always translate into increases in academic preparation or sustained engagement with [Computer Science-Science-Technology-Engineering-Math]," Shoop said. "FIRE will provide the infrastructure, the tools, and the resources to significantly engage students for the long term."

DARPA is funding the effort to help fill the talent pipeline for technology- and science-Smart students. "We have a significant decline in the number of students signing up for computer science, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics majors at the college level," said Melanie Dumas, DARPA's program manager for its CS-STEM Program.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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