Rowan computer professor pushes the right buttons

Rowan University professor Jennifer Kay with some of the Lego equipment she uses to teach computer science.
Rowan University professor Jennifer Kay with some of the Lego equipment she uses to teach computer science. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 06, 2014

Jennifer Kay bends down to push the orange button on the controller of her small, gray Lego robot.

It comes to life, executing a series of short commands Kay had linked together in just a few seconds by dragging blocks around on her computer screen: Say, "Good morning." Roll forward for one second. Stop.

Kay, a computer science professor at Rowan University, looks up, pleased. Seeing the robot move according to its instructions is so satisfying, she said, that it's a natural tool for making computer science education exciting.

Even if the robots aren't on the scale of the self-navigating cars Kay saw while doing doctoral work at Carnegie Mellon University, students respond to them, she said last week at Rowan.

"I was really excited by robots, but Rowan doesn't have the facilities and didn't have the infrastructure," she said. "And so I started saying, 'Well, what can I do with robots?' Because I think robots are fun. And robots are a hook that can get people interested in computer science and math."

This year, Kay, supported by a $34,000 grant from Google, incorporated robots into a new MOOC - one of the massive open online courses that have grabbed headlines in the last few years.

The five-week course consists of video lectures, self-testing, and projects for middle and high school teachers taking the course, using their own Lego Mindstorms NXT robot kits.

The online course followed two years of in-person workshops to spread robotics education, also funded by grants from Google's Computer Science for High School program. The workshops and online course aim to introduce teachers to robots and programming so they can teach robotics in their classrooms.

A truer picture

Teacher education, now an important part of Kay's work, started as a whim of sorts. Like her robots, which use ultrasonic sensors to detect obstacles and maneuver around them, Kay encountered the possibility of Google funding and responded.

She majored in math and computer science and engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. After earning her Ph.D. in 1996 from Carnegie Mellon, she worked in a private research lab. She came to Rowan in 2008, and started teaching mostly undergraduates and pursuing her own research. She won the university's 2013 Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award in April.

Still, she found herself drawn to the question of introducing computer science to students.

"The idea of what a computer scientist is, to most people, is mostly pocket protectors and big glasses and smelly basements, right?" Kay said. "And that's not what computer science is. Computer science is exciting. . . . I think that every high school kid should graduate having had just a little bit of programming."

After her workshops for teachers in 2011 and 2012, Kay collected data that showed they had increased their knowledge of robots and confidence working with them.

When Google announced last year it was considering funding online courses, Kay decided to teach one, even though she had tried MOOCs and not completed the course work, a common situation often used to criticize the courses.

She thought translating her workshop to a five-week online format would simply require shooting videos in front of a curtain.

It wasn't quite that easy.

Kay sought help from Edgar Eckhardt, a Rowan professor of radio, television, and film who said he "kind of upsized it" by persuading Kay to produce the segments in a university studio, teleprompter and all.

Kay spent four months writing scripts, shooting 10-minute segments, and working with students to edit them together with informational slides.

"It puts you in a real-life situation," said Deanna Lugo, a senior radio, television, and film student who worked on the production. "You have to work with what you have. . . . We improvised, and it was neat to use real-world applications for the production. It's definitely an experience. I learned a lot, for sure."

Kay also consulted Janet Moss, a professor of teacher education, who showed her how to teach robotics while explaining how the subject could be taught.

"We're taking a group of teachers . . . they're all experts in teaching, and they've had way more training in teaching than I have, but I can help them to get over the confidence gap," Kay said.

The course remains open, and a handful of people sign up each day, she said, but preliminary numbers paint a complicated picture of its success.

Far and wide

As with Kay's own MOOC experience, a large number of people sign up and never finish: Of 1,165 people who enrolled, only 732 had completed the first week, data compiled Friday showed. But tracking completion is difficult. If participants want the certificate of completion, they demonstrate their five robot projects to their school principals, not to Kay.

A total of 82 people completed Week 5, the final week of course work; 38 said they had completed all five projects and gone through three evaluation surveys.

"If I can reach more people with this than I could have with an in-person workshop, then I win. Then I've done something," Kay said. "And not only can I reach more people than I could have with an in-person workshop . . . but I've got people in Australia and in England who have taken this course."

In her workshops, she taught about two dozen people at a time.

Surrounded by robot toys and paraphernalia - robot-themed Russian nesting dolls, a robot pencil sharpener, a large eraser in the image of a robot - Kay lights up when she talks about a goal described in a paper she will present in March: "Sneaking in through the back door: Introducing K-12 teachers to robot programming."

"My real goal right now is to find the people who might not otherwise do this, and let me try to show you how doable this is," Kay said, describing informal paths such as after-school programs to interest students.

"It's going to be a while before people recognize how important computer science really is to everybody's everyday life," she said. "If we wait for a computer science to be a [requirement] . . . we're going to be waiting for a long time, so let's see what we can do to get this in."

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