This was one of the most interactive sessions. The presenter was Barbara Ericson from Georgia Institute of Technology. On entering the conference room, the first thing that caught my attention was a number of green toy dinosaurs kept on the tables. I learned later that those were the Pleo Robots. The session was pure fun. Barbara has been working on investigating activities that attract students, and especially girls, to computing since 2004. She introduced PicoCrickets, Pleo robots, Scratch, and Alice to us one by one and we got hands on experience with Pleo Robots, PicoCricket and Scratch.
Pleo Robots : These are toy robots which the children can program. The robots have an SD card in them through which instructions are read and executed. The Pleo robot was a green dinosaur. It had sensors at some places on its body. When we initially got the robot, we started it and observed its behavior. It had a default program already installed which made it sing songs and move its tail. We also got to program the dinosaur through the Pleo software. Barbara had some of her students walk around the hall to guide us with the programming. The software for programming Pleo runs only on windows. It is a very easy interface which has a timeline and an action box. The action box contains actions like rolling eyes, moving feet, singing, jerking head in x degrees etc. One has to put actions on the timeline to program the robot. We programmed it, saved the file on the SD card, put the SD card back into the dinosaur and started it by thumping its back. The dinosaur has sensors and takes about 20 seconds to perform the programmed action in the SD card after starting the battery. Barbara called it "waking up" period of the dinosaur. The Pleo robot dinosaurs cost $349 each and their batteries last unto 60-90 minutes.
Scratch : This is a free program available on http://scratch.mit.edu/. Scratch is a programming language that makes it easy to create your own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art. You can also share your creations on the web. The program has an easy to use interface for creating animations with tabs such as motion, looks, control, sound etc. I had a chat with Barbara after the talk and she mentioned that she observes very different behavior in girls and boys when they program the cat on the opening screen of the scratch software. The animations done by the girls are more on the lines of building a home for the cat or drawing flowers around it. On the other hand, the boys try to somehow kill the cat. This observation is a clear indication that we need to find ways aimed specifically at girls to attract them to computer science. Certain things which boys enjoy may not be enjoyable for the girls.
PicoCricket : This was another fun exercise. http://www.picocricket.com/whatisit.html. This is a commercial product and can be bought online. You can plug lights, motors, sensors, and other devices into a PicoCricket, then program them to react, interact, and communicate. We got a number of pico blocks which are simple hardware pieces such as LEDs and timers. Using the software picoblock, we wrote a simple program which measured our reaction time of pressing a button and displayed it on the timer.
The takeaway from the session was that there are variety of products and softwares available, which can be used effectively to attract school going girls and boys to computer science. Barbara has been organizing summer camps for highschool girls where she uses these tools to attract them towards computer science. One of her summer camp attendees is now a junior at Georgia Tech computer science program. Seeing the effect of Barbara's efforts in the form of this student impressed me the most about the session. In the chat with Barbara at the end of the session, she mentioned that their efforts are currently not targeted to get girls interested in specific areas of computer science. I work in security. I have observed that there are fewer girls in the core field of computer science such as systems, networks and security as compared to human computer interaction (HCI). I think the next step in this research would be a way to attract more girls towards these core areas of computer science.