Little blue robots recruit college kids

The lesson plan was called “Artificial Unintelligence,” but it was written more like a comic book than a syllabus for a serious computer science class.

“Singing, dancing, and drawing polygons may be nifty, but any self-respecting evil roboticist needs a few more tricks in the repertoire if they are going to take over the world,” read the day’s instructions to a dozen or so Georgia Tech robotics students.

The students had spent the last few months teaching their personal “Scribbler” robots to draw shapes and chirp on command. Now, they were being asked to navigate a daunting obstacle course of Girl Scout cookie boxes scattered over a grid.

The course is aimed at reigniting interest in computer science among undergraduates. Educators at Georgia Tech and elsewhere are turning to solutions like the Scribbler to draw more students to the field and reverse the tide of those leaving it.

At risk, professors say, is nothing less than U.S. technology supremacy. As interest in computer science drops in the United States, India and China are emerging as engineering hubs with cheap labor and a skilled work force.

Schools across the country are taking steps to broaden the appeal of the major. More than a dozen universities have adopted “media computation” programs, a sort of alternative introduction to computer science with a New Media vibe. The classes, which have been launched at schools from the University of San Francisco to Virginia Tech, teach basic engineering using digital art, digital music, and the web.

Others are turning to niche fields to attract more students. The California Institute of Technology, which has seen a slight drop in undergraduate computer science majors, has more than made up for the losses by emphasizing the field of bioengineering.

“Many of our computer science faculty work on subjects related to biology, and so this new thrust works well for us,” said Joel Burdick, a Caltech bioengineering professor.

At Georgia Tech, computing professor Tucker Balch says the brain drain is partly the fault of what he calls the “prime number” syndrome.

It’s the traditional way to teach computer science students by asking them to write programs that spit out prime numbers, the Fibonacci sequence, or other mathematical series.

It’s proven to be a sound way to educate students dead-set on joining the ranks of computer programmers, but it’s also probably scared away more than a few.

That’s why Balch, who oversees the robotics class, is optimistic about the Scribbler, a scrappy blue robot cheap enough for students to buy and take home each night after class but versatile enough to handle fairly complex programs.

The key to the class is the design of the robot. It weighs about a pound and is slightly smaller than a Frisbee, sporting three light-detecting sensors and a speaker that can chirp. And at about $75, it’s roughly the price of a science textbook.

The class centers on twice-weekly lectures, but the real excitement is in the weekly breakout session. That’s where teaching assistants outline their cheeky lesson plans and instruct students how to use commands like “turnLeft(x)” and “sense(y)” to navigate their Scribblers around makeshift obstacle courses.

Students aren’t just teaching the Scribblers how to move; they’re teaching them how to dance, how to draw, and how to create music–a sort of artistic dynamo.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Ami Shah, a 21-year-old senior biology major. “I’ve learned a lot from this class, and I think it’s a really handy skill.”

Professors are planning to expand the class from around 30 students to more than 200 next semester and are exporting the class to two other Georgia schools in the fall.

Georgia Tech, which has branded the robot the “new face of computing,” is hoping that the class can be a new national model to teach students computing. To Microsoft Corp., which is investing $1 million to jump-start the program at Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr, it’s an investment in what could become its work force.

Outside groups have applauded the effort, too.

“In fact, computing is a tool that can be used for virtually every application–from entertainment to medicine,” said Virginia Gold of the Association for Computing Machinery. “And the Scribbler helps show how pervasive computers are in everything.”

The computing industry has a reason to be concerned about the future.

The number of new computer science majors has steadily declined since 2000, falling from close to 16,000 students to only 7,798 last fall, according to the Computing Research Association.

And the downward trend isn’t expected to reverse soon. The association says about 1 percent of incoming freshmen have indicated computer science as a probable major, a 70 percent drop from the rate in 2000.

The aftermath of the dot-com bust might have triggered the exodus, but computer scientists admit they’ve also been slow to adapt to the changes by reprogramming their teaching methods.

The Scribbler is just one aspect of Georgia Tech’s efforts to transform the study of computer science. Last fall, the school launched a totally redesigned framework for earning a computer-science degree. Dubbed “Threads,” the program shuns a traditional degree in favor of a more personalized approach–one that aims to make every course students enroll in more relevant to their professional aspirations. (See ‘Threads’ wends new approach to computer science,

Although the Scribbler is one of several methods to lure more students to the field, its popularity has surprised educators. Some 30 schools already have expressed interest in the course, said Deepak Kumar, the chair of Bryn Mawr’s computer science department.

“It’s fresh and new and engaging,” said Kumar, who teaches a class of 24 Scribbler-wielding students. “We’ve got our fingers on one way to solve the problem.”

Balch, who is watching the students from the corner of the classroom, is happy to agree: “It beats prime numbers,” he says.


Institute for Personal Robots in Education

Association for Computing Machinery

Computing Research Association

Georgia Tech

Bryn Mawr

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at