I’m a Computer Scientist—I Don’t Mix Chemicals

On Friday, I gave my “I’m a Computer Scientist” introduction to the 8th grade Earth Science students at Arrowhead Middle School. I began by asking the students what a scientist does, and the answers ranged from the stereotypical “mixing chemicals” to the more insightful “discovering new knowledge.”

Fortunately, Computer Science is so ubiquitous in the daily lives of 8th grade students—whether they realize it or not—that it was easy to illustrate what a computer scientist might do using technology that the students were already familiar with. One question about what the students like to search for on Google and a quick introduction to Information Retrieval later, and I was able to move on to a much more interesting area of Computer Science—robots!

Of course, all of the students were familiar with robots from popular movies and television shows, and we started by describing some of the tasks that these robots performed: WALL-E collected garbage, C-3P0 translated languages, R2-D2 flew spaceships. I then explained how robots might be used for Earth Science research, such as how CReSIS uses robots to measure the depth of ice sheets, and how scientists are then able to use that information to study climate change.

Next, the students split into groups to decide what tasks their robot would perform if they were able to create their own personal robot. Sadly, none of the students chose Earth Science research. The most common answers were doing homework, cooking dinner, and doing chores around the house. We then discussed whether each of these tasks would be easier for them or their robot to perform consistently, and tried to identify the characteristics of these tasks that made them easier or harder for their robots to perform. For example, unchanging tasks in a static environment, such as mowing a lawn, were determined to be much easier for a robot to perform than other chores, such as cleaning their room, because that task is likely to change each time it is performed.

In order to demonstrate the difference between how the students might learn to perform a task versus how a robot would learn to perform the same task, I had the students describe how they had learned to speak and understand English. They decided that they had learned by observing and imitating their parents. While they had learned to talk long before learning any sentence patterns or the differences between a noun and a verb, I described how all of these rules must be explicitly taught to a robot before it could understand English.

I concluded my introduction with an example of how I had taught robots to perform tasks in my own research. Once again, describing the process of breaking down a task into clear rules that could be taught to a robot, and how dramatically that process differed from how the students would learn to perform that same task.

Overall, the students seemed very engaged in the presentation. However, I noticed in my first introduction that as soon as I stopped actively involving the students, either by asking them questions or having them work together in groups, they very quickly seemed to lose interest, their eyes glossing over almost immediately. For my remaining introductions, I included more interesting illustrations and made sure to more frequently involve the students with direct questions. After making these changes, the students continued asking and answering questions throughout the entire hour. A final observation I made, after splitting the students into groups before explaining to them what they should be discussing, is how valuable their attention is, and how difficult it is to get it back once it’s gone. Fortunately, that is a mistake I didn’t make twice!

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About Mark Calnon

I am a PhD student in Computer Science at the University of Kansas.
This entry was posted in 2011-2012 GK12, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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