PITTSBURGH—The Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) and the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science recently entered the second year of a three-year National Science Foundation grant. The grant allows CCAC and CMU students to engage in advanced computer programming courses, but its main focus is broadening computer information technology within community colleges across the nation.
The program, Alice 3, is the latest version of an innovative software environment designed to make computer programming less challenging and more enjoyable for students to learn. Alice is the brainchild of the late Randy Pausch, a CMU computer science professor who became famous for his life-affirming “Last Lecture.” His goal was to make computer programming easier for students to learn. Alice 3 allows beginners to use a simple drag-and-drop interface to create 3-D computer animations. Unlike previous versions of Alice, this version offers advanced students the chance to create programs by writing with Java, the most popular programming language.
CCAC faculty Don Smith and Eileen Wrigley are collaborating with Wanda Dann and Don Slater, members of the Alice Project at Carnegie Mellon University, to improve first-year retention rates in computer science and information technology programs. Smith and Wrigley are applying their expertise in teaching community college students to develop curricular and instructional materials.
Through the $338,083 grant, CCAC has introduced a course using Alice 3 that features the fundamentals of programming using 3-D animation. The objective is to get non-computer information technology (CIT) students more interested in computer programming, and to better prepare CIT majors for the advanced course featuring Java. CCAC is one of three total community colleges participating in the grant. The others are Camden Community College in Camden, NJ, and Collin Community College in Dallas, TX.
Dann, a former community college professor, explains what prompted this grant to encompass community colleges: “I am very much aware that more than 50% of students in the USA who are enrolled in post-secondary education are in community colleges,” she says. “Community colleges, therefore, play a significant role in preparing our students to participate successfully in a global economy.”
Two current CCAC students who have used Alice this semester, Ariel Gelman and Carrie Piotrowski, have benefitted from the program. “I like that Alice 3 has given me the necessary building blocks to work with a programming language like Java.” Gelman explains. She believes that Alice 3 and future versions will help students succeed in refining their programming skills.
Piotrowski says that Alice helped her to visualize in small steps. She recalls her favorite assignment using Alice was one in which she had to use the drag-and-drop method to bake a cake. “That was a lot of fun because I got to be really creative with making objects do things.” she says. Both students agree that the Alice program is a great tool to help introduce people into computer programming.
Smith hopes the grant will continue to improve computer programming success rates: “CCAC is pioneering the use of Alice 3 in community colleges.”
The Community College of Allegheny County is the largest institution of postsecondary higher education in Pennsylvania. The college serves 30,000 credit students through 170 degree and certificate programs and offers thousands of lifelong learning non-credit and workforce development courses to 35,000 students annually. Incorporating a learning-centered environment committed to the future of the region, CCAC continues to expand its reach through innovative programming and accessible instruction offered via convenient day, evening, weekend and online courses. With four campuses and six centers serving Allegheny County and surrounding communities, CCAC endeavors to fulfill its mission to provide affordable access to quality education and offer a dynamic, diverse and supportive learning environment that prepares the region’s residents for academic, professional and personal success in our changing global society.