To Teach Computing, a New Tool Calls on The Sims

Wanda P. Dann, director of the Alice Project at Carnegie Mellon U.

Alice 3, a computer-science teaching tool, introduces programmers to Java, displaying the computer code below its "drag and drop" feature so they can see how to make computer animations move in other software programs.
August 10, 2009

Randy Pausch loved creating virtual worlds on computers. And Mr. Pausch, the late computer-science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, wanted all of his students to learn how they could share in his fun. But typing code wasn't exactly most students' definition of "fun".

Alice, the software program he created to entice students, is now being used at about 15 percent of colleges and universities nationwide. This month, a beta version of Alice 3.0 will be released, letting students create animated movies and games with new characters from The Sims video games and teaching advanced users the Java programming language in the process. The software is freely available from Carnegie Mellon's Web site.

With computers and video games as staples in more and more households, today's collegebound students expect to be able to do more with computers, and to be able to do it quickly, says Wanda P. Dann, who took over as Alice's director after Mr. Pausch, co-author of The Last Lecture, died last year, at the age of 47, after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Students assume they will be able to create a game within the first few weeks of a programming course, says Ms. Dunn, an associate professor at the university. "When they find out that it's probably three or four years down the line before they can do anything that remotely resembles what they play with in a video game, it's very discouraging."

Bill Taylor, a computer-science professor at Camden County College, in New Jersey, says Alice has made a real difference since he started using it five years ago. "Before, if we would give students an assignment, maybe 70 percent of them would complete the minimal requirements for the assignment," he says. "Using Alice, we now find that we have 100 percent that meet the minimal requirement. They get so hooked on the animations that they're creating that they take it much, much further."

A previous version, Alice 2.0, introduced a "drag and drop" feature that let students place characters and objects in relationships that resulted in actions, without manually typing in codes.

With that feature, simple typing errors, like misplaced punctuation marks, no longer frustrate beginning students, says Don Slater, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon.

Seeing the Code Itself

Still, the transition from Alice to programming in other languages, like C++ or Java, was often difficult, since the drag-and-drop feature did not show any translation to the often complex code of those languages.

The newest version of Alice tries to deal with that issue. While the drag-and-drop feature is still present, the program translates those commands into Java code, so students can also see what the code would look like if it had been entered manually. The same videos created for Alice can be opened in Java format, allowing students to alter the code originally created in Alice in Java instead.

Adelaida Alban Medlock, who teaches computer science for nonmajors at Drexel University, thinks this will help students grasp concepts faster than before, since they will now see the Java code, which includes difficult variations of punctuation marks. "That's going to make their lives a lot easier," she says. "They can see this is how it's going to look next term. It's terrific."

Characters from The Sims were given to Alice's programmers in 2006. The new characters are already capable of performing more-complex tasks than in previous versions, like doing push-ups, fainting, and even intimidating other characters.

Its designers admit that the beta version of Alice 3.0 has some flaws. Sound has not yet been incorporated into the program. There is no option to use keyboard commands during a video, similar to those used in video games. And while you can open an Alice file in Java, you can't save your changes and reopen it in Alice. Finally, if you make a mistake, there is no undo button yet.

Although some professors tested the new version in their classes this past spring, others, including Ms. Medlock, are waiting until all of the problems have been solved before they introduce it to their classes. "My course is geared for nonmajors," she says. "I need to reduce the amount of frustration. I want to make the experience as pleasurable as possible."

She is confident, though, that Alice 3 will meet her needs. "When it's ready and completely functional, I'm sure it's going to be the best."