Alice Workshops Led by Susan Rodger

July 11, 2012

It was back to school for about 25 secondary teachers who probably felt a bit like Alice … in programming land.

The teachers, mostly but not exclusively from North Carolina, spent two weeks in June at the Department of Computer Science learning how to use and integrate the computer programming language Alice into their curricula. Led by Professor Susan Rodger and a team of student assistants, the teachers spent their first week (June 18-22) learning to navigate the 3D animated programming environment. In the second week (June 25-29), they worked on creating lesson plans to incorporate the software into their various disciplines.

Kyle Taft Mendenhall, who will teach special education at Oak Grove Middle School in Winston-Salem, thought he could use Alice as a role-playing device to teach students about social issues. He might create worlds with animated figures in various scenarios who talk to each other through text balloons.

Maureen Legaria, who teaches English and English as a second language at Hillside High School in Durham, saw herself using Alice both as an instructional tool and as a way for students to build vocabulary and use the concepts they learn. She envisioned her students creating games, short conversations and stories with Alice. She even saw students being motivated to create and share poetry through the worlds they can create.

“Once they present something on their own, they have ownership of it,” noted Marianne Lingman, who teaches German and Spanish at New Bern High School in New Bern. She saw many applications for Alice in her classroom, including practicing verb conjugation and vocabulary.

The workshops — offered through funding from the National Science Foundation and IBM — are part of the Adventures in Alice Programming project to integrate Alice into secondary schools in North and South Carolina and Mississippi. Duke’s site, which has run since 2008 when it received its first NSF grant for the project, opens its workshops to a few teachers outside North Carolina each year. The project’s goal is to introduce students to computer science while they’re beginning to form decisions on what they’ll do in life. Many studies show those ideas start in middle school. By the time they enroll in college, it may be too late to change their minds, Rodger said.

Workshop participant Chari Distler’s school — North Broward Preparatory School for grades 6-12 in Florida — is making a push to offer programming and other technology courses at both secondary levels. As part of that mix Distler will teach 16 sessions of Alice in the upcoming school year. Few middle schools across the country offer actual computer science. Instead of trying to acquaint students with the field through programming-only courses, this project aims to get those students’ teachers to use Alice as a tool in a variety of courses in many disciplines — math, music, physics, business and more.

“My hope is to try to show teachers how to integrate it in so that kids become more aware of what computer science is,” Rodger said. “If they like it, they might choose it as a career.” A shortage of workers in technology is predicted for the future, so the goal seems very important.

“Students don’t know what computer science is,” Rodger explained. “They think it’s keyboarding, and that’s not computer science. That’s just using the computer as a tool. They don’t realize that computer science is more like problem solving. By doing Alice, they’re actually doing logical thinking; they’re doing computational thinking; they’re problem solving with it while they’re trying to program.”

Current funding for Duke’s Alice project will allow three more years of teacher workshops. Participants this year included teachers from Nevada and Canada as well. Teachers who attended the 2012 workshop will have a chance next July to share how they’re using Alice, create additional lesson plans and learn about new materials being developed.