The first thing that comes to my mind is … wait a minute, not Lewis Carroll’s lost girl, but Randy Pausch’s program for 3D scripting. In his seminal talk in the Last Lecture series at Carnegie Mellon University, amidst his other achievements, Dr Pausch wonderfully talked about being an `imagineer’. He talked about directing the development of Alice, a 3D scripting program that was borne of his desire to earn his star inside the Walt Disney walls of fame. More than that, he wanted kids to imbibe his excitement for being an `imagineer’. That’s when, as he says, putting his Mad Hatter hat on, he steered Alice towards helping kids learn computer programming without them even realizing it.
What struck me most was the way his mentee Dr Caitlin Kelleher has now taken the program to the most unlikely users and popularized it among them – middle school girls! As part of her dissertation, she introduced the program as a story telling activity where young girls were actually writing software to narrate their stories. I absolutely understand and truly appreciate the gravity of their effort; especially given that I myself am struggling to learn the ABCs of programming and code for data analysis as part of my master’s thesis.
From Kelleher’s Alice homepage
“Storytelling Alice provides a motivating context in which to learn programming. A study comparing middle school girls’ experiences with learning to program in Storytelling Alice and in a version of Alice without storytelling features (Generic Alice) showed that:
- Users of Storytelling Alice spent 42% more time programming than users of Generic Alice.
- Users of Storytelling Alice were more than three times as likely to sneak extra time to work on their programs as users of Generic Alice (51% of Storytelling Alice users vs. 16% of Generic Alice users snuck extra time to program).
- Despite the focus on making programming more fun, users of Storytelling Alice were just as successful at learning basic programming concepts as users of Generic Alice.”
What next, Dr Kelleher – inner city schools of Baltimore? (These are schools in the poorest and crime-stricken areas of Baltimore, and possibly the whole country). Imagineering it into those dark locations – that would indeed be sheer magic!
I visited CMU, Pittsburgh in November 2009 and this plaque adorns the wall next to the Randy Pausch Labs door. The bridge connecting the Computer Science and Fine Arts building has been built and it looks magnificent at night when its walls are lit up in neon lights. I was so fascinated and overwhelmed that I could not disturb the sanctity of that moment with a flash. A sacred place it is for me.
For someone like me who was taught LOGO and BASIC at a time when Windows 98 had stormed the world, ALICE would have been a delightful window into wonderland! If not me, for sure some other talented girls in class who either never had an opportunity or were daunted by the seemingly Y-chromosome inhabited worlds of `engineering’ and `technology’.
Looking forward, we can, in our capacity as alumni offer to sponsor such programs in our schools. More like a tribute to our alma maters, and a gift to our juniors.
Alice. Continue reading