alice in summerland

learning and teaching math in alice

An Innovative Approach with Alice for Attracting K-12 Students to Computing

pdf Susan Rodger, International Conference on the Virtual Computing Initiative (IBM University Days), Research Triangle Park, NC, May 7, 2007, (p. 17).

I came across this paper on Professor Rodger’s listing of her papers on her website. Written in 2007, this paper describes the past three semesters of teaching Computer Science 4: Programming and Problem Solving. It’s interesting to read about the Alice experience at Duke before the 6-site project even happened, and the whole experience was even more new and experimental than it is today. Reading this paper has showed me that the Alice project has become even more exciting than the idea at its premise and also more successful than imagined.

According to the paper, while IT job openings have been rapidly increasing, the number of students choosing to major in computing has significantly decreased. Teaching students in Alice solves the problems of attracting and retaining, especially in the context of diverse groups such as women and minorities, students to the subject. In Duke’s CS4 class, there are 50% women and minorities in this class opposed to 10-20% women and minorities on average in our other computer science courses at the university.

As a Duke student, my one problem with this claim is that CS 4 is considered to be one of the easiest quantitive science courses offered. Since many humanities students have difficulty in other math classes that fulfill the distribution requirement of two quantitative science classes, they choose this “easier” class. Thus, the higher proportion of women in the class may reflect the high number of women in humanities classes, who are scared to take a challenging quantitative class. The relatively high women participation rate is thus a little more disturbing/upsetting to me than convincing of the attractiveness of the course for its teaching of fundamental computer science concepts. I’d be interested in seeing the retention of students in the computer science department after having taken this class. I assume it wouldn’t be very high–not because of the class itself but because of the self-selecting group of students that choose to take it opposed to upper level courses. Nonetheless, regardless of their motives, it is still good to see women taking computer science courses in one of the most rigorous departments at such a prestigious university.

Anyway, the paper continues to explain a Females Excelling More in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science, or FEMMES-supported program for 60 4th-6th graders where one activity involved learning basic Alice worlds in the Duke CS department. Future plans for the Alice project included pursuing a National Science Foundation-funded project across the six regional sites. These plans have been a success today!

Alice programming has shown to be effective for teaching object-oriented programming concepts and programming concepts to many middle and and high school (and apparently introductory college) students. The predicted long-term impact to industry of teaching Alice is and increase in number and diversity of computer science majors.

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