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October 27, 2005

   

BRYN MAWR COMPUTER SCIENTISTS WIN
NATIONAL AWARD FOR ROBOTICS COURSEWARE

Deepak Kumar

Pyro, an educational robotics-programming environment developed at Bryn Mawr, was the co-winner of this year's Premier Award for Excellence in Engineering Educational Courseware. Bryn Mawr Assistant Professor of Computer Science Douglas Blank and Professor of Computer Science Deepak Kumar, along with Swarthmore's Lisa Meeden and Holly Yanco of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, developed the award-winning project, which includes a starter kit for college robotics laboratories complete with several curriculum modules and documentation.

Douglas Blank

The Premier Award, sponsored by The National Engineering Education Delivery System, the Synthesis Engineering Education Coalition and John Wiley & Sons publishers, recognizes high-quality, noncommercial courseware designed to enhance education. According to the NEEDS Web site, "Too often these developers find little reward, either financially or institutionally, for their superb and time-demanding efforts. In addition, the use of multimedia technology in the classroom is expanding rapidly, yet many faculty integrating courseware into their classes are unsure of indications of quality." The Premier Award was initiated in 1997 to address these problems in engineering education by rewarding the creators of outstanding projects and holding them up as examples. The winners of the award are featured on the NEEDS Web site to promote the widespread distribution of high-quality courseware; the prize also includes a trophy, a $2,500 cash award, and 2,500 copies of the software on CD-ROM.

A Pyro workshop in 2004

Pyro is the software component of "Beyond LEGOs: Hardware, Software, and Curriculum for the Next Generation Robot Laboratory," a project funded by a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The project's goal is to make advanced topics in robotics and cognitive science accessible to undergraduates by taking advantage of Pyro's ability to give instructions to many different kinds of sophisticated robots.

Pyro, according to its developers, "is a robotics programming environment that enables students to explore topics in robotics and artificial intelligence. Programming robot behaviors in Pyro is akin to programming in a high-level general purpose programming language; Pyro provides abstractions for low-level robot-specific features so that a single program can run on many different types of robots." The Pyro project consists of the software (written in the programming language Python) as well as a set of curriculum modules that can be assembled to teach a variety of courses, including cognitive science, artificial intelligence and advanced robotics.

Each summer since 2003, the Beyond LEGOS project has hosted Pyro workshops for about 20 to 25 participants, primarily college professors who hoped to use Pyro to create teaching laboratories at their own schools. Organizers keep in touch with workshop participants throughout the year to give advice and hear about classroom successes and problems. The Bryn Mawr Computer Science Program also hosts mailing lists and other online resources for users and developers of the open-source software at at http://PyroRobotics.org.

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