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The Sims Chosen To Teach Computer Science

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Carnegie Mellon University has teamed up with video game company Electronic Arts (EA) in an attempt to reinvigorate computer science education. As part of the collaboration, EA will provide “The Sims” characters and animation to a free educational software package.

EA agreed to help underwrite the development of Alice 3.0 – a popular object-oriented, Java-based computer-programming environment created by Carnegie Mellon researchers. The pair hope to bolster computer science enrollment, especially among women.

The mega-popular PC game, “The Sims,” of which EA has sold over 54 million units, will be aimed at kids as young as middle school age to encourage them to go into programming.

“Getting the chance to use the characters and animations from ‘The Sims’ is like teaching at an art school and having Disney give you Mickey Mouse,” said Computer Science Professor Randy Pausch, director of the Alice Project at Carnegie Mellon.

“‘The Sims’ is EA’s crown jewel, and the fact that they are willing to use it for education shows a kind of long-term vision one rarely sees from large corporations.”

“Inspiring next-generation game-makers is a primary objective,” said Bing Gordon, chief creative officer at EA. “Alice has already proven to be a powerful tool to engage all kids – most particularly girls.”

Alice is an open-source system developed during the last 10 years and provided as a free public service by Carnegie Mellon. Developed by computer science professors Wanda Dann of Ithaca College and Stephen Cooper of St. Joseph’s University, Alice is already used at more than 60 colleges and universities to teach various introductory computer science/computer programming courses.

Individual hobbyists and enterprising game programmers may also download the software free of charge at www.alice.org, and the teaching materials free of charge at www.aliceprogramming.net.

In the last five years, universities have seen a 50% drop in computer science enrollment. Faculty members have attributed this to the frustrations of first year learning, especially with the incorporation of object-oriented programming.

On of the strengths of the Alice program is its ability to make concepts more concrete. Objects appear as 3-D characters – people, animals, furniture, etc. They’re controlled through a drag-and-drop editor that prevents syntax errors and allows students to write code like “move forward one meter” or “rotate left one-quarter turn.” These commands are easily understood by students and the computations are displayed on screen in real-time animations.

Until now, the characters used in Alice have been very basic. With the addition of “The Sims” characters, the program will be visually enhanced, as well as recognizable to young students.

Students using Alice 3.0 will essentially be working in an environment that looks and feels like “The Sims.” Characters will look and move like Sims characters and the library of “The Sims’” emotional reaction animations will be integrated into the program.

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The Sims Chosen To Teach Computer Science
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