Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Robots Make Computer Science Fun Again

Students who program robots are more likely to stick with their computer science curriculum.

  • July 19, 2010
The long-term trend for interest in computer science at the university level is relatively bleak. As the graph at above makes apparent, interest has declined precipitously since the 2001 bursting of the dot-com bubble, leading to something of an existential crisis in the field of computer science instruction.

The latest survey on the subject, which charts 2007-08 data, showed a widely-reported up-tick in enrollment of 8 percent, which is great for a year-on-year change, but neglects the long-term trend.

One has to wonder whether it’s the very ubiquity of computers that has made them uninteresting to students–note the spike of interest in the early 80’s, when the advent of personal computers slaked a pent-up demand for access to the instruments that everyone believed would define the future.

Robots, in contrast, are still rare in our everyday lives–plus, they’re the furthest thing from remote and abstract. So goes the reasoning behind a new effort to get them into classrooms, described earlier this month in a paper by Tom Lauwers and Illah Nourbakhsh, in which they unveiled the Finch.

The Finch is cheap, simple and avoids the major complexifying factor most previous efforts to add robots to computer science have encountered: namely, robots break, and debugging physical objects is a headache students don’t need.

The results were profound: retention rates for the 2009 computer science classes in which the Finch was used (shown below, in red) increased by 25 percent.

And why not? The Finch sounds like exactly the kind of Maker project everyone’s inner geek cries out for:

The Finch can express motion through a differential drive system, light through a color- programmable LED, and sound through a beeper and using computer speakers. Similarly, it can sense light levels through two photoresistors, temperature through a thermistor, distance traveled through two wheel encoders, obstacles placed in front of it, and its orientation in three dimensional space through an accelerometer […] In addition to these hardware-based capabilities, the accompanying software allows students to easily have the Finch speak or play songs over computer speakers, read real-time data from internet RSS feeds, and react to video from computer webcams.

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