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July 13 , 2006

   

Bryn Mawr CS Program Chosen to Co-Host Microsoft Robotics Institute With Georgia Tech
Software Giant Cites BMC's Expertise in Educational Robotics

IPRE Co-Director Douglas Blank

Women are a tough crowd for computer science – difficult to attract to the discipline, difficult to retain once enrolled. But Bryn Mawr's Computer Science Program has a remarkable record of success using innovative teaching approaches to welcome women into the digital fold. That record, combined with an award-winning instructional-robotics software platform developed at Bryn Mawr, has attracted the attention of Microsoft Corp. The software giant has awarded Bryn Mawr and a partner institution, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the stewardship of a new Institute for Personal Robots in Education (IPRE).

Funded by a $1 million Microsoft grant that will be matched by the two host institutions, IPRE aims to broaden the appeal of computer science – a discipline that has been steadily losing majors in U.S. colleges and universities for the last five years – by introducing robotics into the discipline's core curriculum. Researchers at Bryn Mawr and Georgia Tech will be developing an introductory computer-science course that teaches basic lessons in the discipline with real robots.

BMC Computer Science Chair Deepak Kumar
Three years from now, IPRE plans to offer a Computer Science 101 textbook that comes packaged with a small, simple robot, at a price that is within the range charged for computer-science textbooks now on the market. Georgia Tech is responsible for developing the hardware; Bryn Mawr is responsible for creating the software that students will use to program the robots. The curriculum's effectiveness will be tested at a diverse group of institutions: Georgia Tech's College of Computing, Bryn Mawr, the University of Georgia and Georgia State University.

The software will be a new version of Pyro, a versatile robotics platform created by Associate Professor of Computer Science Douglas Blank and developed, with the aid of a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, by a team including Blank, Professor of Computer Science Deepak Kumar, and colleagues at Swarthmore and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Pyro, because it is adapted to several different kinds of robots, significantly reduced the time investment necessary to work with robots and made robotics accessible to undergraduates. Last fall, Blank and Kumar won a major national award for their work on the Pyro project.

"Pyro allows students to jump right in and begin exploring problems in robotics," Blank says. The new version, tentatively dubbed "Myro," will be integrated with Microsoft's new Robotics Studio.

A prototype of the personal robot
Eight colleges and universities described by Microsoft as "leading U.S. schools with strong track records in educational robotics" were invited to submit proposals to host the institute. Bryn Mawr was the only liberal-arts college in the group, which otherwise comprised large research universities and polytechnic institutes. Stewart Tansley, program manager in External Research & Programs at Microsoft Research, explained that the invitation was tendered to Bryn Mawr because of its lead role in developing Pyro, which he characterizes as "perhaps the leading educational robotics platform today," and the College's "status as an innovative liberal-arts institution teaching computing science in novel ways."

Novel approaches are in order, Microsoft says, because of the precipitous decline in the number of computer-science majors in U.S. institutions. Policymakers and high-tech industry leaders have noted this trend with alarm. The discipline appears to be especially unwelcoming to women and minorities – it is, for instance, the only discipline in the sciences and engineering in which the number of female students has declined since 1983.

"IPRE hopes to help reverse this trend," says Blank.

The IPRE partners hope an introductory course that offers the opportunity to program a personal robot will arouse students' interest and stir their imaginations. "We've seen that robotics brings a consistent excitement in its many manifestations," says Microsoft's Tansley. The prospect of working with a robot could help to motivate students who might not otherwise be attracted to a discipline that is often seen as the preserve of the "nerd" demographic. It might also help retain students who are uninspired by the abstraction of computer code.

The discipline — and the world of technology — has much to gain by incorporating a wider range of perspectives, says Kumar, who began teaching at Bryn Mawr in 1993. The Bryn Mawr program has long been committed to exploring alternatives to standard teaching methods that appear to discourage women from entering the field.

"Bryn Mawr's involvement in this partnership introduces the ideas and problems in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics to a very different set of students from the traditional engineering types that have worked on those problems over the past 50 years," says Kumar. "As a result, I think we will see some very different and amazing solutions to these kinds of problems."

The Bryn Mawr program's pedagogical philosophy springs from its unusual understanding of the discipline itself as a liberal-arts field, Blank and Kumar say.

"We see computer science as a way of asking and attempting to answer some of the big questions that are really at the heart of a liberal-arts degree, be it in French, physics or philosophy. Big questions such as: Who are we? Where have we come from? What is consciousness?" Blank explains.

This approach tends to attract students with diverse academic inclinations, Blank and Kumar say – not just those drawn to mathematics and engineering, but those who gravitate toward natural sciences and even humanities. For instance, computer science major Julia Ferraioli '07 came to Bryn Mawr planning to study archaeology.

Julia Ferraioli '07 with robotic dogs in the Bryn Mawr AI laboratory
"I decided to take a computer science course my first semester, and it was my favorite course," she says. "I kept registering for computer-science courses because I wanted to be sure I had something on my schedule that was really fun. Then when it was time to declare a major, I realized that I had more courses in computing than any other discipline."

She enjoyed the coursework enough to take on a robotics challenge as an extracurricular activity last spring. Ferraioli was one of five students who designed and programmed an aerial robot for a competition at Drexel University. The Bryn Mawr team made a strong showing despite the fact that none of the students involved had ever taken a robotics course. The thrill of seeing the "roboblimp" go through its paces kept them in the lab.

Ferraioli thinks that teaching introductory computer science through robotics is a great idea.

"If you have your own robot and you can see it moving around and following your commands, it brings the lesson home in a way that watching a screen can't," she says. "I can see it attracting a lot of people who might not otherwise take a CS course."

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