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August 13. 2012 10:21PM

UNH-Manchester animation class targets middle schoolers with 'Alice'


The new UNH Manchester dean, Dr. Ali Rafieymehr, will use "Alice," educational software that teaches computer programming in a 3D enviroment, in a free course for 20 city middle school students. 

MANCHESTER —The new dean of the University of New Hampshire at Manchester is looking to reverse the sharp decline in students interested in pursuing a career in computer science and technology. The tool he is using is a 3-D animation course for middle-school students.

Ali Rafieymehr said high school is too late to snag a student's interest. He said recruiting has to start in middle school, so UNH Manchester is offering 20 city middle-school students — 10 girls and 10 boys — a six-week 3-D animation course, starting next month.

Called “Alice,” the free program was developed at Carnegie Mellon University. It teaches students fundamental programming concepts while creating animated movies and simple video games.

The course will run from Sept. 26 through Oct. 31, on Wednesday afternoons from 3:15 to 5:15 p.m. on the UNH Manchester campus, with transportation and a snack provided. Students can use computers at UNH and will get study guides with downloadable discs and flash drives.

Students at the city's middle schools must apply through their teachers and principals and should apply as soon as possible after school opens because there are only 20 slots.

Rafieymehr is adamant that at least half the applicants must be female.

In Alice, 3-D objects (e.g., people, animals, and vehicles) populate a virtual world and students create a program to animate the objects.

Rafieymehr said what is happening now is that children are interested in playing with computers. But the sometimes excessive interest in playing games doesn't transfer to the pursuit of a degree in science and technology.

Rafieymehr said a survey showed young people said programming is too difficult, requires too much math, and is boring. That distresses Rafieymehr, who spent 20 years as a software engineer at Digital Equipment Corp. and Avici Systems before a career in education.

Rafieymehr said that by the junior or senior year in high school, it's too late to get young people on the technology track.

“You either like science or you don't,” he said, and for too many girls, it's “don't like.”

The dean said he sees the effects of the Barbie world in his own grandchildren, but he's determined to at least offer girls an opportunity to fall in love with computer science and technology.

Often, he said, youngsters, especially girls, resist math, asking, “Where am I going to use that?” But when the practical use of math is explained, whether it's why one route is better than another to reach a goal or figuring out how many steps to put in a staircase, or how to divide a recipe, it becomes relevant.

That's the idea behind Alice, according to the course description, which is available in Spanish as well as English and is in use around the world.

In Alice's interactive interface, students drag and drop graphic tiles to create a program, where the instructions correspond to standard statements in a production oriented programming language, such as Java, C++, and C#.

Alice allows students to immediately see how their animation programs run, enabling them to easily understand the relationship between the programming statements and the behavior of objects in their animation. By manipulating the objects in their virtual world, students gain experience with all the programming constructs typically taught in an introductory programming course.

Rafieymehr's desire to inspire students also led him to develop a program called KITS, Kids in Technology and Science, that brings middle-school students together for a day to build new computers. It takes them step by step, explaining the elements of a computer by making them relatable.

For example, he said, a motherboard takes its name from what a mother is, she's the person who connects everybody. Similarly, students are asked how much is 2 plus 2, and when they say 4, they are asked how they knew that. They used their memory to process the equation, which is the function of the CPU (central processing unit).

Alice was designed because college students were having a hard time learning programming concepts. With Alice, students were able to animate in 20 minutes.

By the end of five sessions at UNH Manchester, Rafieymehr expects his middle-school participants will have completed 3-D animation projects for a competition on the last day of class in October.

dvincent@unionleader.com


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