Using Robots and Simple Programming to Attract Middle School Students to Computer Science

Computer science is not widely taught in the early years of schooling and perhaps this is why the field fails to attract many students during high school and beyond (Blank, 2006). We feel that computer science is not introduced to students at an early enough age and that it should be taught and emphasized during students’ primary school years. We ourselves were initially exposed to computer science only in the later years of high school or even as late as college. We want to design a project that will expose middle school students to computer science and make it an exciting experience so that they might consider future studies in the subject. We have chosen to work with middle school students as opposed to elementary school students because a project of this caliber will perhaps be too advanced for the latter.

From a young age, children are intrigued by remote controlled toys. This project will expand on that interest and will primarily explore whether the use of robots can attract middle school students to the field of computer science, while also addressing the following additional questions: Do remote controlled toys attract middle school students more then conventional toys? What types of robots would attract middle school students? In what way will the program have to be presented in order to attract students? Should it be presented differently for girls and boys?

In order to make students inquisitive about computer science, we plan to write a program which will allow students to operate a wirelessly remote controlled robot through the use of simple Python commands. For example, to move the robot, a student can simply give the command myRobot.move(). Similarly, they will be able to make the robot rotate, sense obstacles, draw, and hopefully even create music and take photos. A significant amount of coding will go into creating the interface between robot and computer, but we intend to mask this from the end-users, namely the students. Since they will be using actual commands from the Python language, it will expose them to simple programming, but will not force them to understand the intense syntax involved. We feel this approach will make the students’ first encounters with computer science less intimidating while succeeding in giving them a taste for the subject.

We would also like to engage the students in small projects which will provide them with incentives to learn the language in order to operate the robot, while still maintaining a fun environment. For instance, we can create a robot obstacle course in which the students have to be fast and creative in order to win, or have organize contests in which they have to imitate music compositions or drawings provided to them (Blank, 2006). Through a friendly yet competitive atmosphere, we hope to stimulate interest in the field of computer science.

Before we can embark on this project, we must answer a few preliminary questions. To explore whether children are attracted to remote controlled toys rather than conventional ones, we will conduct a series of experiments in surrounding middle schools in order to gauge students’ preferences in this regard (Kelleher, 2007). We also want to investigate whether children choose to play a game in real life or virtually on the computer. For example, would they rather play solitaire on the computer or would they prefer to use a real deck of cards? Additionally, we will conduct web surveys, targeted to the general public (and not only middle school students), to determine what types of robots people in different fields of study, age groups, genders, etc., prefer. The results of the surveys will help us to determine the type of robot that would best serve our purpose. In addition to choosing the appropriate robot, the project also involves making the program user friendly and the interface attractive to middle school students; to do this we plan to use cartoon animations in the interface.

In order to examine the effect of our program, we will survey the students on how they feel towards computing after using robots and have them share their experiences. For example, we can ask whether they thought it was fun, and whether they would be interested in taking further courses in computer science. We will give them a similar survey before the experiment and compare any changes in their responses.

We are aware that if the students do not show an interest in the robots or our interface, our project may fail. To prevent this, we will have to make sure that we take their input on the type of robot and animation that they enjoy (which we give receive when we do our preliminary experiments). We will then work towards building the robot and interface to make it appealing to their tastes. We will also take into consideration past experiments and incorporate ideas that had given positive responses.

We feel that we will be able to effectively carry out this project because our ardent interest, experiences, and background knowledge in the field uniquely qualify us to succeed. As women of a minority ethnic group this project will give us a rare opportunity to broaden our experiences while making a contribution to computer science education. As computer science majors, we have acquired skills that will help us reach our goal. One of us will be working with IPRE (Institute for Personal Robots in Education) over the summer to conduct research on developmental robotics and how it could be integrated into the teaching methods of the Computer Science Department at Bryn Mawr College. This will involve working closely with the introductory course, which is currently being taught using robots. This experience and research on how robots can contribute to the teaching of computer science will be valuable to our project. We also have experience in 3D animation, specifically using MilkShape 3D and the Torque game engine. We have been teaching assistants for the introductory computer science course at Bryn Mawr, which uses Python programming. One of us has been involved in an individual project for the English board exam which consisted of creating a program for a blood bank. The program involved the creation of different user friendly forms for blood banks, donors, and recipients, keeping records, and also allowed the banks to check for blood compatibility. We have been involved in past intercollegiate projects, such as the creation of a computer controlled robotic blimp. We have also used NetLogo in order to model emergent phenomena such as trading economies and social behavior. In addition, we have been exposed to Java, Python, C, Visual Basic, and Awk programming languages.

This project will complement existing projects, such as Myro (at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Bryn Mawr College) and TeRK (at Carnegie Mellon University), both of which are using robots as tools for education. Our project will also build on past projects such as the Personal Rover Project at Carnegie Mellon University, whose aim was to “create robots that would inspire and excite children about science and technology” (

Our project is concurrent with the goal of CREU in that our program will expose students to, and help cultivate interest in the field of computer science. As South Asian women we are aware that women from our part of the world are not encouraged to pursue a degree in computer science and this grant will allow us the rare opportunity to contribute to the education in the field. Through this we hope to encourage other minority women to take part in a field that is underrepresented by women. As undergraduate women planning to study computer science in graduate school, it will also empower us to be able to manage our own project and build team and leadership skills.

Participants (Students and Faculty):
Students: Mansi Gupta, Marwa Muhammad, Shikha Prashad

Faculty Advisor: Douglas S. Blank


Institute for Personal Robots in Education. 2 May 2007.

Educational Robotics – Vehicles for Teaching and Learning. 2007. Carnegie Mellon University Robotics. 2 May 2007.

The Personal Rover Project. 2 May 2007.

Nourbakhsh, Illah et al. “The Robotic Autonomy Mobile Robotics Course: Robot Design, Curriculum Design and Educational Assessment.” 5 May 2007.

Nourbakhsh, Illah et al. “A Roadmap for Technology Literacy and a Vehicle for Getting There: Educational Robotics and the TeRK Project.” 5 May 2007.

Nourbakhsh, Illah et al., “A Roadmap for Technology Literacy and a Vehicle for Getting There: Educational Robotics and the TeRK Project.” 5 May 2007.

Challinger, Judith. Efficient Use of Robots in the Undergraduate Curriculum. In Proceedings of the 36th SIGCSE technical symposium on Computer science education, p. 436-440, ACM Press, 2005. 7 May 2007.

Blank, Douglas S. “Robots Make Computer Science Personal.” Communications of the ACM. 49.12(2006): 25-27.

Viadero, Debra. “Computer Animation Being Used to Bring Science Concepts to Life.” Education Week. 2007: 21-26.

Kelleher, Caitlin, Randy Pausch, and Sara Kiesler. “Storytelling Alice motivates middle school girls to learn computer programming” Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2007: 1455 – 1464.

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