May 22, 2007

Programming with Pictures

We all know that CS is a hard sell to students these days and that enrollments in most places for mainstream computer science programs are down. So, how to attract students to the field and keep them once they enroll? One strategy is to make the introductory programming experience a lot more pleasant, a lot less like banging your head against a very hard, very nitpicky brick wall. (For what it's worth, I'm one of those that took to programming like a duck to water. My first language was Fortran and I really didn't have too many problems learning to write programs.)

A great article in InsideHigherEd today, Programming with Pictures by Elizabeth Redden, talks about a new programming language/environment called Alice that lets students learn the basics of programming right away while working on cool-looking graphical programs.

About 10 percent of the nation’s colleges now use Alice, an open-source, graphical software program available free online that allows users to learn the very basics of programming — concepts like iteration, if statements and methods — while making 3-D animations. Alice’s growth within college computer science departments has been impressive: Most colleges only began incorporating Alice in their introductory CS0 or CS1 courses within the past 18 months, since the release of an accompanying textbook.

But the software, currently readable to users in plain old English (a major drawback for many faculty who of course teach programming in standard computer languages like Java and C++), is potentially poised to penetrate far more colleges in 2008, when Alice 3.0 comes out in Java — featuring, this time around, sophisticated graphics, made available free by Electronic Arts Inc., from “The Sims,” the best-selling PC video game of all time. (And significantly, Pausch adds, one of the few games more popular with girls than boys. Computer science, he notes drily, has the unfortunate distinction of being the only discipline in the sciences to actually face declining female enrollments percentage-wise in the last 25 years).

It's a well-done article, well worth reading the whole thing. Alice is not without its drawbacks -- it's not object oriented, for example -- and the article does a good job of giving the pros and cons.

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