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Kids Creating Computer Games

Pittsburgh, Penn. -- Computers used to keep businesses on track, assist doctors with complicated surgeries and even develop life-saving combinations of drugs. The demand for computer programmers has never been greater, yet there has been a 50-percent drop in the number of computer science majors over the past seven years -- especially among women. A new program uses the lure of animated movies to entice young students.

The sky should be the limit for someone imagining a future in computers. But how do you light a fire under an aspiring student? Find a way to make it fun. Computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a revolutionary new way to teach the basics of computer programming called "Alice."

Instead of using Java -- the computer language with lots of numbers and punctuation -- "Alice" relies on three-dimensional figures placed in a storyline.

"We like to refer to it as Pixar in your garage. It's 3-D characters, but it's obviously low-budget," says Randy Pausch, director of the Alice Project at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn.

Users manipulate their computer mouse to select from a gallery of 700 characters and backgrounds. Next, they choose their character's movements using a pull-down menu. Researchers say "Alice" is the perfect way to engage pre-teens, especially girls.

"To really have a substantial impact on the number of female students that end up in computer science, you really have to reach them no later than middle school." Caitlin Kelleher, Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn.

For 12-year-old Lucy Gabriel, "Alice" made her computer class the highlight of the school day.

"I like designing the characters. Making them look funny, or making them look the way I want them to look," Gabriel says.

"It's almost sinister in the fact that they're programming, but they don't know it," says Laurie Heinricher, Dean of Students at Winchester Thurston Middle School in Pittsburgh, Penn.

Alice's developers give the software away as a free download. They're hoping someday, Alice sparks enough interest in computer programming to sharply increase their ranks.

Alice's developers say they don't know exactly how many schools are using the program to teach computer programming, but they say there have been more than a half a million downloads. Download your own copy at:

The American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.

Click here to Go Inside This Science or contact:

Dr. Randy Pausch
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
(412) 268-3579

American Mathematical Society
Providence, RI 02904-2294
(800) 321-4267

Mathematical Association of America
Washington, DC 20036-1358
(800) 741-9415

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