Finches Take Flight
BirdBrain Technologies, a Carnegie Mellon University startup, released a flock of its Finch robots ahead of Computer Science Education Week, celebrated now through Dec. 15.
Developed at CMU's Robotics Institute, the low-cost, tabletop robots are on loan to educators across the U.S. who are using them to help get kids excited about computer programming.
Designed for an engaging introduction to the art of programming, the Finch can support more than a dozen programming languages and environments, and are appropriate for students as young as eight years old.
With on-board features such as sensors, motors, accelerometers, a buzzer, a full-color beak LED and a USB port, the Finch allows for students to write richly interactive programs.
Tom Lauwers (E'03, CS'06, CS'10), who founded BirdBrain in 2010, said the loan program is meant to introduce computer science and programming to fourth through ninth graders. The project supports Computer Science Education Week's Hour of Code initiative, which seeks to demystify computer code with a one-hour introductory activity for 10 million students.
"The purpose of the Finch is to make computer science instruction exciting and more motivating so that kids can see the potential of computer science and eventually go into the field themselves," he said.
The original plan was to put 1,000 Finch robots in schools for one week, but demand for the bots was so high that this amount would have only reached 10 percent of applicants.
"We decided to send out six sets of 50 Finches over the next 14 months on a monthly rotation, with a seventh set devoted to Pittsburgh," Lauwers explained. "This way we will be able to reach tens of thousands of kids."
Mount Hebron Middle School in Montclair, N.J., was one of the first schools to receive the Finch robots. Led by Ursula Wolz, a computer science professor at William Paterson University, 500 sixth, seventh and eighth graders are participating in Finch-related activities.
"It's been amazing to watch the students participate and see them teach each other as they work together on the activities," said Daniel Taylor, a STEM coordinator at Mount Hebron. "Dr. Wolz asks probing questions, and they run with it."
Eileen Malick, who teaches students at Atlee High School in Hanover County, Va., is also participating in the loan program. Among the activities she planned was a "Robotics Fun Day," in which she and the Atlee High School Robotics Team and Computer Science Club hosted a program for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts that satisfied a number of badge and patch requirements.
"Students are so comfortable with the Finch, we were able to have Girl Scout Brownies, which are second and third graders, participate," Malick said. "They were following along with the activities really well — taking the robot's temperature, lighting it up, making it beep, move forward, move backward. It was fantastic session, and we want to do it again in the future."
Computer Science Education Week is an annual program dedicated to showing K-12 students the importance of computer science education. Organized each year by the Computing in the Core coalition and Code.org, the program is held in recognition of the Dec. 9, 1906, birthday of computing pioneer Admiral Grace Murray Hopper.