Guest Post by Leah Montgomery, NC Central University
With technology and computer science among the fastest growing fields of study today, it’s a wonder there are so few computer science classes in public middle and high schools.
Florida teacher Chari Distler’s message to a Duke classroom full of her middle and high school teaching colleagues was a promising one: They can get a new generation of kids interested in computer science.
All they have to do is follow Alice.
Alice is a 3D virtual worlds programming environment that offers an easy way to create animations for games and storytelling. Since 2008, Duke Professor Susan Rodger has led a two-week summer program training teachers to use Alice to help promote computer literacy among young students.
“What we’re trying to do is teach middle school and high school teachers, in all disciplines, how to program and then help them to integrate it into their discipline,” said Rodger. “The teachers will then expose students to what computer science is. The idea is that if they know what it is then they might choose it as a career when they go to college.”
Distler attended her first Adventures in Alice Programming session at Duke two years ago and returned this week to advise this year’s class on how she implemented the program in her classes.
She said one of her students from North Broward Preparatory School won second place in the annual Alice contest for his animated 45-second video titled “From Rags to Riches.”
Audrey Toney, an instructional coach for teachers in the North Carolina New Schools network, said she learned about Alice through a teacher who wanted to add programming to her curriculum.
“It gives students computational thinking and critical thinking and offers another way to present other than PowerPoint and Prezi,” said Toney.
Toney wants to challenge her professional development students to use Alice to replicate a design of a robotic arm that will lift and unload boxes. The program will allow students to budget money, price the cost of parts and code the robot’s movements.
During the first week of the workshop, teachers get familiar with the Alice software through interactive activities. Teachers created worlds with flying dragons, flipping princesses and annoyed Garfields.
In week two, teachers learned about the use of 3-D imaging in the classroom at the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE). The teachers also started creating their own Alice-based lesson plans this week. New Jersey high school teacher Kenneth McCarthy said he found his inspiration in the Sunday paper.
“I was thumbing through the Sunday paper and saw Garfield,” said McCarthy, who teaches algebra two and a beginner programming class . “It just looked like something that could be easily used with Alice.”
McCarthy is familiar with Alice, having used the program last year when his students participated in the Hour of Code, an initiative that challenges students and teachers to learn programming in one hour.
“I think the traditional thought was that you have to know algebra two (and other higher mathematics) to learn this, but Alice can be used in elementary schools,” said McCarthy.
Rising Duke senior Samantha Huerta was a workshop assistant for Susan Rodger for nine weeks this summer, helping develop workshop materials and finding ways to integrate computer science into math and other subjects.
“I wasn’t exposed to any type of computer science growing up,” said Huerta. “This is a field that isn’t going to go away, and we need to have more diversity. As a female Latina, I am a double minority and it is my hope to continue researching and bringing diversity to this field.”