Carnegie Mellon University is preparing to release Alice 3.0, a 3D animation and programming software that uses a drag-and-drop method in a graphical interface to make programming more intuitive and attainable for students interested in computer science.
“We developed this drag-and-drop environment, which essentially eliminates all of the syntax errors that students normally make and relieves a lot of the frustration that is involved in first learning to program,” says Wanda Dann, director of the Alice research team.
According to Dann, there has been a considerable drop off in computer science enrollment, especially over the past seven or eight years, and retention of students has also become harder. “A major motivation for this tool has been to change the way computer science is introduced and the way it is first learned to program,” she says.
Alice was originally developed by Randy Pausch as a rapid prototyping tool for virtual reality. Eventually, the VR gear was dropped and Alice remained an immersive 3D environment and spun into an educational tool with the help of Dann and Stephen Cooper, associate professor of computer science at Saint Joseph’s University. There are different versions of Alice available, including Storytelling Alice, a program for children, particularly young girls, and Alice 2.0, a program for high school and pre-CS1 students. Now Pausch, Dann, Cooper and the Alice research team are preparing to deploy Alice 3.0, which can be used in a computer science curriculum to transition students into programming.
“Alice 3.0 will have a direct mode to allow instructors and students to make the transition from a 3D animation environment, which is Alice, to the real word production language, which would be Java,” says Dann.
One appealing feature of Alice 3.0 is that the software will use 3D models from the Sims 2 video game. “(The 3D models) will raise the level of quality for the animation and the expressiveness of the face and the gestures and so forth,” says Dann. All the models in the Alice software, even in the past versions, have been pre-constructed for the students. “We’re not expecting beginning students in computer science to know how to use 3D modeling packages,” says Dann. Electronic Arts, makers of the Sims, are a sponsor of the Alice research project, along with DARPA, Intel, Microsoft, the NSF and ONR.