October 26, 2007
The demand for computer programmers remains high, yet the number of undergraduates majoring in the subject has been on a downward spiral for the past seven years. A new visual programming language, called "Alice," aims to attract kids to the field of computer science at a young age. Developed by computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, "Alice" uses three-dimensional figures placed in a storyline instead of the usual numbers, letters, and symbols of a standard programming language.
In a recent episode of the syndicated TV series Discoveries and Breakthroughs Inside Science (DBIS), Randy Pausch, director of the Alice Project at Carnegie Mellon, discusses how "Alice" software is simple enough for pre-teens to use and fun enough to get them interested in computer programming. "We like to refer to it as Pixar in your garage," Pausch says. "It's 3D characters, but it's obviously low-budget."
"Alice" is currently used in about 100 U.S. high schools and universities. Instead of focusing on the manipulation of code, "Alice" lets students drag and drop 3D images of people, houses, or animals into scenes on the computer screen, move them around, and tell stories as they learn the basics of programming.
"It's almost sinister in the fact that they're programming, but they don't know it," says Laurie Heinricher, Dean of Students at Winchester Thurston Middle School in Pittsburgh, Penn. Studies funded by the National Science Foundation have shown that Alice improves student performance and retention at the college level, especially among young women and minorities.
"Alice" software is available for free at www.alice.org.
"Alice Teaches Kids to Program" is just one of a wide range of mathematical, scientific, and technological topics covered in the DBIS series. The American Institute of Physics produces these science news programs, with the MAA as a contributing partner. The NSF-funded DBIS project delivers twelve 90-second segments each month for showing on local TV stations across the country.