Alice Teaches Kids Computer Animation

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News Article

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Campus Unit

University of North Dakota


“Now I will make the volleyball move to sphere one, then sphere two, then 3,” instructed Tom Stokke during day three of Alice Animation Intro Camp this week. Roughly 20 students, ages 9 to 14, filled the computer lab in Streibel Hall to learn the basics of computer animation.

“I want to have a job building robots and computers because it sounds fun,” said Zach Harms of Fargo. Even though he had no previous experience before coming to the camp his mom found for him, he had already learned to program the robot on his screen (an image of a cartoon cow), to create “different stuff” for the animation he was making and to make the robot move on its own.

The animation camp uses Alice, a computer program that makes creating a virtual world to tell a story or play a game easy. Drag-and-drop graphics make programming a snap for any age. Programming with Alice allows the camper to focus on the content and creativity of the story, which helps develop problem solving skills.

Stokke is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and his goal as the camp instructor is to introduce young people to the basic concepts and logic of computer science – regardless of how they end up applying it. “We’re not trying to turn everyone into computer geeks,” he laughed. “I don’t know where they’re going to go or what they’re going to do, but they are having fun. Every advance in career fields involves computers. The more comfortable they are and the more they understand how to use them, the better off they will be for whatever they are going to do.”

Sixth-grader Ryan Pilon of Grand Forks talked about making his image of a cow in Alice and learning how to animate it to kick a volleyball. “The hardest part is trying to figure out how to get it in the air.”

Christie Stayman from Grand Forks explained her creation. “He’s going to hit the volleyball and it’s going to follow the spheres so it looks like he kicked it. I’m going to fix the spheres so it looks like it’s going in an arch.” All this and she’s only going into the third grade.

Alice was developed by Randy Pausch, the late professor and author of The Last Lecture. Stokke likes using it because, “It introduces concepts if computer science. Some of the language used in the program is what we cover in our level one courses. So, this really helps us get the logic of computer science across.”

Even on a sunny summer day, the students sitting in the computer lab don’t lack enthusiasm. “What should I do next,” asked Stokke.

“Put the cow in the air so he can turn all the way around,” volunteered one student.

Katia Mayfield, PhD student in scientific computing, is one of Stokke’s assistants for the camp. “They’re very creative,” she said of the room full of campers. “Teaching to college students and teaching to kids, there is a big imagination difference. You see [the campers] explore more with what you can do.”

Dragons, knights, ninjas, and swords are some of the more popular animation images the boys choose, Stokke noted, but there are just as many girls expressing creativity in other ways.

Stokke’s daughter Elle beamed as she said, “I’m going to make the ball move and then my dad is going to teach me how to make it explode!”

“There is a good mix of boys to girls. Last year it was close to 50/50,” said Tom Stokke. “There is a push to get more women in computer science and all of the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).”

There is some interest from local elementary schools to provide afterschool clubs for Alice, too. “I already have a robotics group at Kelly Elementary and there are more girls than boys, so hopefully they think science is ok,” said Stokke.

By the end of the week-long day camp, participants can demo their work to their parents and to each other. Campers are sent home with a CD of the program they can load on their home computers (Mac or PC), so they can keep practicing what they learned.

“It’s interesting,” said sixth grader Sam Witucki. “You see so many different things that are animated and now we’re learning how to do it.”