A team of faculty and students from Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar recently introduced "Alice Middle East," 3-D interactive educational animation software designed to help primary and secondary school students learn the basics of computer programming and how to apply logical thinking and problem-solving techniques.
In learning to program, many students struggle with developing algorithms and figuring out how to apply problem-solving methods, but "Alice" enables students to learn these skills through 3-D animations and storytelling.
Her Highness Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser expressed a keen interest in Alice in 2008, which prompted Carnegie Mellon faculty to explore the possibility of developing a version of Alice for the Middle East. Funded by the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) National Priorities Research Program, Alice Middle East was first implemented in 2012 with an initial pilot program in Al-Arqam Academy, a private English-speaking school in Doha.
Since September 2014, computing has been replacing information and communication technology (ICT) in UK primary schools, so that children can be introduced to computational thinking at an early age. Carnegie Mellon faculty have been taking the lead by introducing Alice as a tool to engage students in computing and by training teachers in Qatar's schools to implement and integrate the new curriculum.
In addition to supporting the new UK computing curriculum at Al-Arqam Academy, the Supreme Education Council (SEC) has piloted Alice Middle East since September 2014 in two independent schools: Ali bin Abi-Talib Independent School (year 8) and Khalid bin Waleed Independent School (year 8).
The introduction of Alice in independent SEC schools will help address a shortage of students in Qatar pursuing higher education in fields relating to computer science.
Nour Elhouda Tabet, a teacher at Al Arqam Academy, commented on the impact of Alice in her classroom.
"Innovation is driven by expression and our upcoming generation is highly creative and our teaching methods must support this. Alice has enabled students to express their ideas through storytelling, and animation whilst also learning programming skills along the way. Alice has an impact on the students overall learning experience, we can utilize it to further their interest in writing, history or art," Tabet said.
Saquib Razak, an assistant teaching professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon Qatar, was tasked with the localization of the existing U.S. version of Alice for the Middle East.
"The goal of the project is to make it easy for young students to explore computer science concepts through developing interesting 3-D animations that are both fun to create and educational. For Alice Middle East we developed 3-D models relevant to Qatari culture, including camels, land cruisers and Zubarah fort, making the student learning experience more contextual and helping bridge what a student has learned in a school setting with their home culture. We have also developed a textbook for Arabic-speaking students," Razak said.
"The development and implementation of Alice for the Middle East demonstrates Carnegie Mellon's commitment to research, which impacts the development of Qatar. We hope this creates a generation of technology innovators that will be at the forefront of Qatar's future development," said Ilker Baybars, dean of Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar.
Alice was founded by the late Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon. The program was named after Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" because of Carroll's ability to communicate clearly in an entertaining way. The software has been implemented in countries in the United States, Asia, South America, Central America, Europe and the Middle East with an estimated 1.4 million downloads per year.
Alice Middle East is led by director and lead project investigator Wanda Dann and Razak, the co-lead project investigator. The team consists of Huda Gedawy, a Carnegie Mellon computer science graduate and curriculum developer; Aliaa Ahmed and Mounira Tlili, Carnegie Mellon computer science students and curriculum developers; Don Slater, systems scientist; Fatma Almoghunni, character artist; and Omar Ashour and Mohammed Fituri, Carnegie Mellon computer science students and character artists.
Carnegie Mellon faculty also are tracking the students' progress through in-depth analysis, which will measure the impact Alice has on their performance in fields such as computing, technology and math.
Alice was demonstrated to secondary school students last weekend during CS4Qatar for Women, an outreach program that aims to introduce young women to computer science and explore career possibilities in the field.