A new four-year, $7 million educational initiative by
Carnegie Mellon University will leverage students’ innate interest in
robots and other forms of "hard fun” to increase U.S. enrollments in
computer science and steer more young people into scientific and
The initiative, called Fostering Innovation through
Robotics Exploration (FIRE), is sponsored by the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and designed to reverse a significant
national decline in the number of college students majoring in computer
science, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (CS-STEM).
FIRE will develop new tools that enable middle and high
school students to expand upon their interest in robots, leading them
from one CS-STEM activity to the next. Examples are programming tools
that create game-like virtual worlds where robot programs can be tested,
as well as computerized tutors that teach mathematics and computer
science in the context of robotics.
The initiative will target robotic competitions such as
FIRST, VEX and Robofest that already are popular among secondary school
students, but also will create new competitions for autonomous,
multi-robot teams and for computer animations that will attract a
broader array of students and offer new challenges.
"The idea is that these programs must be rigorous, but
fun — what we call ‘hard fun,’” said Robin Shoop, director of FIRE and
of Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Academy, an international leader in the
development of K-12 robotic education curriculum. "Robots provide a
great teaching tool. Kids like robots and are innately curious about how
they work and how they make decisions. Finding answers to their
questions is fun, but technically challenging, and that makes robotics
uniquely suited to teaching students computer science, engineering and
For more information and to register to receive updates for this project visit www.fire.cs.cmu.edu.
The number of U.S. college graduates with CS-STEM
degrees is declining, raising concerns about national competitiveness.
The trend is particularly pronounced in computer science, where the
number of graduates dropped 43 percent from 2004 to 2007 and where women
and minorities remain underrepresented.
"We have a significant decline in the number of
students signing up for computer science, science, technology,
engineering, and mathematics majors at the college level,” said Melanie
Dumas, DARPA’s program manager for its CS-STEM Education Program. "The
CS-STEM Education Program will help fill the talent pipeline and enable
our nation to compete on the international stage.”
Since 2000, the Robotics Academy, part of Carnegie
Mellon’s Robotics Institute, has developed techniques and tools to help
K-12 teachers use robots to teach science and mathematics and has
trained thousands of teachers on how to incorporate robotics into their
lessons. The academy will play a central role in FIRE, but the project
also will draw on expertise from across Carnegie Mellon’s renowned
School of Computer Science.
Ken Koedinger, Albert Corbett and their colleagues in
the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII), for instance, will
develop automated tutoring systems for teaching Robotics Academy
courses. "Cognitive tutors” developed at Carnegie Mellon already are
used by hundreds of thousands of students each year to learn algebra and
other traditional subjects. The computerized tutors present lessons and
problem sets, provide step-by-step guidance with complex
problem-solving and adjust the lessons to each student’s comprehension
level. FIRE’s cognitive tutors will assist teachers and mentors who
coach in robot competitions but may lack the mathematics and programming
background necessary to help students tackle increasingly harder
Likewise, Wanda Dann and her colleagues in HCII’s Alice
Project will work with FIRE to create an Alice Animation Competition
designed to increase the number of girls engaged in computer science.
Alice (www.alice.org) is a software environment that enables novices to
create 3-D computer animations and, in the process, teaches basic
programming principles. Animation contests that use Alice or other types
of animation software can appeal to students of both sexes who might
not be interested in robots.
The Alice team will collaborate with the Robotics
Academy to add virtual worlds to ROBOTC, a programming language
developed by the academy that works with many of the educational robotic
platforms used in robot competitions. "This new ROBOTC capability will
allow students to design and test robots in a virtual environment when
it would be impractical to do so with a physical robot. We plan to add
other programming languages as the project evolves,” Shoop said.
Manuela Veloso, professor of computer science and
president-elect of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial
Intelligence, and Howie Choset, associate professor of robotics, will
develop new teaching tools and a new competition for teams of robots
working cooperatively. "In the future, robots will work in teams, not as
single robots,” Veloso said. "If we want to drive future innovation,
then we need to begin to challenge students to solve multi-robot
To further expand the potential pool of CS-STEM
students, Lori Levin, associate research professor in the Language
Technologies Institute, will work with FIRE to increase participation in
the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO),
www.naclo.cs.cmu.edu/. The International Linguistics Olympiad is very
popular in Europe; FIRE’s goal is to make it accessible to thousands of
students across the U.S.
In addition to creating new competitions, FIRE will
reach out to national organizations such as the Girl and Boy Scouts, 4H,
and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to engage more students in
activities that prepare them to be future innovators.
"Tens of thousands of students nationwide participate
in robotic activities every year, but these activities do not always
translate into increases in academic preparation or sustained engagement
with CS-STEM,” Shoop said. "FIRE will provide the infrastructure, the
tools, and the resources to significantly engage students for the long
Christopher Schunn and his colleagues at the University
of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center will provide a
key component for the project, evaluating the educational effectiveness
of FIRE’s tools and methods and monitor outreach efforts to communities
across the country.