3-D Animation Software Spurs Interest in Computer Science

Posted: December 5, 2007
Stephen Gareau has a new teaching assistant. Its name is Alice. Yes, it. Alice is a user-friendly 3-D computer-animation program that Gareau, a Buffalo State College assistant professor of computer information systems, introduced to his educational computing class—EDC 604—this fall.

Gareau’s students, who are predominantly K–12 teachers from Western New York, are exploring ways to use Alice in their own classrooms as a way of encouraging interest in the computer science field.

“Nationally, interest in computer science majors and careers has declined considerably since 2000,” said Gareau. “Alice was designed to combat this trend by creating an engaging and easy-to-use application as a way to attract a broader audience to the field.”

Alice uses a drag-and-drop interface that allows users to create animations for short movies or interactive video games without encountering high-end programming code, a concept that piqued Gareau’s interest.

“Traditionally, introductory computer science classes often spend a lot of time with complex program languages, such as C++,” Gareau said. “Computer programming is a lot like learning any other language, and concepts such as if-then statements and loops can be intimidating to some students. Alice does a great job of showing what computer programming can do without discouraging students with high-end code. This is particularly important for K–12 teachers, who often have little background in computer programming.”

Gareau was also drawn to Alice because of cost—the program is free. Carnegie Mellon University, which has developed Alice over the past 10 years with assistance from the University of Virginia, offers free downloads of the program on the Web along with free teaching materials.

More than 100 colleges and universities are using Alice in introductory computer science courses, but Gareau is focusing on the benefits the program could have on K–12 education. “Budgets are tight in school systems throughout the country and in Western New York,” he said. “When I select tools to teach with, I want to make sure my students will have access to the same tools in their own classrooms.”

Gareau said two of his students have already implemented the program into their own computer labs. “To see a quick turnaround like that, it is very encouraging,” he said.

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