Grant May Help Reboot Computer Science Education

Project Puts Students at the Controls to Learn Basic Programming Concepts

Jan. 14, 2010

Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas have wasted no time making good use of a $2.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), implementing a program that could become a model for middle school computer science programs nationwide.

“We’re trying to motivate students to become more interested in computer science,” said Jorge Cobb, the project’s principal investigator and an associate professor of computer science in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. “They’re doing work that’s not only fun, but actually is very similar to what is done by college-level computer programming students.”

“They’re learning intelligent trial and error, sequencing, cause and effect, and prediction. Those are all phenomenally valuable tools.”

Larry King, CHAMPS program manager

Known as CHAMPS (CHallenging Algorithmics and Mathematics in Problem Solving), the project introduces Dallas-area middle school students to a 3-D programming environment called Alice in which they learn introductory programming concepts by creating simple video games and animations. In the process, students not only develop critical-thinking skills but also get a taste of the intellectual rewards of working with high-level algorithms.

“They can see the results of what they do immediately,” said Larry King, CHAMPS program manager and a senior lecturer in the Jonsson School. “They get instant feedback, so it gives them the opportunity to see right away if they’ve done something the way they wanted to. If they haven’t, they can go back and try it again.”

The project began 18 months ago as an after-school program in several middle schools. Teachers and principals in two schools are so positive about the program that they have asked CHAMPS to create a class that will become part of those schools’ curricula starting in Fall 2010.

“From the teachers’ standpoint, the most important skill the kids can learn is problem solving, which is required in math and science,” King said. “Through Alice they’re learning intelligent trial and error, sequencing, cause and effect, and prediction. Those are all phenomenally valuable tools.”

Teachers like the program because it enhances their students’ test-taking dexterity, King added. And parents are enthusiastic about the program too.

“Many of these kids will become first-generation college students,” he said. “When parents see their kids learning computer science at the middle-school level, they can see them moving ahead, going to college and getting into a good profession.”

While Cobb focuses now on boosting funding to extend the project beyond its current five-year duration, King is busy formalizing all of the things they’ve learned into a more structured and rigorous curriculum.

CHAMPS was a finalist in the Metroplex Technology Business Council’s 2009 Tech Titans/Fast Tech Awards, and if all goes as planned, CHAMPS may soon get more than just recognition: It could become a model for how computer science is taught in middle schools.

“Although there are other engineering grants that have a computer science component, we are the only pure computer science NSF grant of this kind in the country,” King said. “We hope to serve as a model for other computer science programs that may want to do this kind of thing in middle schools. If we can standardize our curriculum to where it’s easily transferable, we may reach that goal.”


Media Contact: Jimmie Markham, UT Dallas, (972) 883-4995, jrm014010@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu

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CHAMPS help session

The CHAMPS project introduces Dallas-area middle school students to a 3-D programming environment.

CHAMPS class

Students learn introductory programming concepts by creating simple video games and animations.


Teachers Report Positive Response from Parents

“One boy brought his mom to a session,” one teacher said. “The two of them worked on a virtual world he has been creating. The mom really got into it to the point where they actually were disagreeing on what should be done next in the world. She seemed very impressed with what the program can do and with what her son had created.”

“We had several parents come to our sessions this week,” another teacher said. “One couple spoke primarily Spanish. The student was very excited to show his parents what he had done in the CHAMPS sessions. The mother mostly listened, but the father asked his child a lot of questions and really encouraged him to continue working with computers.He told us he was very happy his son was getting good at using the computer since the really good jobs all require computer skills.”

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