A $330,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) has partnered researchers from Rensselaer, the University at Albany, Union College, and Schenectady County Community College in a collaborative effort to lay the groundwork for an innovative new program in social robotics that the team hopes will revitalize computer science education.
Perceptions that programs of study in computer science are abstract and difficult to understand and apply have resulted in a global downturn of enrollment in the field, according to Selmer Bringsjord, head of Rensselaer’s Department of Cognitive Science and co-principal investigator on the NSF-sponsored project.
“In order to attract the best and brightest students into the field of study, we need to revolutionize teaching and education in computer science by allowing students to experience the thrill of connecting deep, formal, abstract concepts with hands-on artifacts,” says Bringsjord. “My challenge is to show students that though formal logic might seem dry, it can serve as the basis for robots that provide more fun than modern computer games.”
Bringsjord and a team of researchers are investigating the development of a program that would essentially overhaul traditional computer science education by emphasizing the use of robots and robotics to interactively teach a range of core computer science competencies.
Called social robotics, the prospective program would look beyond the engineering challenges associated with robotics, toward the variety of roles robots can play in modern society, the challenges of technology interacting with humans, and the ethical issues such interaction applies. Such a program would leverage popular interest in robotics to make aspects of computer science applicable and appealing to students both within and beyond traditional science and technology backgrounds, according to the researchers.
“Proficiency in core computer science competencies particularly the principles of programming and algorithm design is vital for success in our ever-evolving high-tech environment,” says Bringsjord.
Robots are an ideal platform for students to learn key computer science concepts, begin to program and get immediate feedback, and to learn about hardware and software and the interplay between the two, according to the researchers. They are hoping the new field of study will draw on the expertise of a variety of disciplines including elements of design, psychology, cognitive science, communication, and philosophy.
Interdisciplinary groups of students enrolled in a social robotics program could work together to develop a variety of projects ranging from robots that are tasked to patrol social areas, meet people, take names, and check appointment lists to software agents that can locate people and rooms and give directions.
The researchers have begun investigating the viability of offering a program in social robotics across institutions in the Capital Region by identifying which existing courses offered at each participating institution could contribute to the new program. They also plan to propose and create new courses to fill out the program where necessary.
Additionally, the researchers plan to hold four open workshops over the next two years at the Schenectady Museum to collaborate with and solicit input from academics, students, individuals from industry, and members of the general public as they outline this novel approach to teaching computer science.
At the end of the two years, the team expects to have the framework in place for a multidisciplinary program in social robotics that will offer students from a wide and diverse set of educational backgrounds a non-traditional route into computer science, engineering, and technology education. They plan to implement the curriculum both locally and nationally.
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