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Project SMILE: How smart houseplants and block-based programming can raise interest for computer science in female students

In western countries, computer science courses are still dominated by men: Women in Europe rarely make up more than a quarter of all students – in most countries, they represent less than 20 percent. As part of the joint project SMILE, the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), the University of Bremen and further project partners work on raising interest in computer science amongst young female students. A new study shows that block-based programming and the usage of smart everyday objects can help giving the students more confidence in their programming skills and support the development of a positive attitude towards computer science among them.

A female student uses a laptop in order to control the functions of the Bremen Ambient Assisted Living Lab (BAALL) at the DFKI in Bremen. Source: DFKI GmbH, Photo: Mazyar Seraj

When students of computer science in Europe celebrate their degree, only an average of one in five of them is a woman. The number of female university alumni in STEM subjects is still extremely low compared to the number of degrees received by men. In order to increase the amount of female computer science academics sustainably and lower the dropout rate, enthusiasm for computer technology has to be generated early on. The project SMILE is looking for ways to make this possible: Scientists at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) and the University of Bremen, cooperating with further project partners, are looking for ways to awake interest in computer science among female students – using robots, intelligent objects and smart environments paired with block-based programming.

The Cyber-Physical Systems research group of the DFKI, led by Prof. Dr. Rolf Drechsler, investigates if and how simplified programming languages, smart environments and close references to everyday life can raise enthusiasm for technology in young girls. A new study introduced houseplants that were transformed into smart objects by twelve 6th grade students, successfully applying light sensors, humidity regulators, Mp3 players and further gadgets. The study on the impact of creating smart everyday objects on young female students’ programming skills and attitudes proves: The usage of block-based programming environments and tangible objects helps girls to be more confident in their skills and strengthens this confidence sustainably.

Study on creating smart everyday objects receives international recognition

During a four-day workshop at the DFKI in Bremen, the girls between eleven and twelve years learned how to connect and control different gadgets such as light, temperature and humidity sensors, LED lights, water pumps and mp3 players in such a way that they automatically care for the wellbeing of a house plant, using microcontrollers and block-based programming. The settings were adjusted to the character of the plant, which the students selected beforehand, depending on whether the plant likes a loud or quiet, bright or dark environment. As a further result, the scientists of the DFKI noticed that young girls with existing basic knowledge of computer science become enthusiastic about programming smart objects faster and more sustainably than others and in hindsight value their skills more.

The study is in the SIGCSE 2020 symposium proceeding held the United States of America, the largest conference on Computer Science Education in the world. It is already the third study on block-based programming undertaken by the DFKI as partner of the SMILE project. All investigations are led by the question of how block-based programming can be used effectively in introductory courses to computer science. In this respect, a Block-based End-user programming tool for Smart Environments (BEESM) is presented in order to bring together the hot topics of Smart Environments and the visual programming paradigm. The programming tool represents single functions as moveable blocks and is thus easier to understand and to apply. Apart from smart environments, this tool can also be used to program robots and smart objects, such as houseplants. The SMILE project regards this area of computer science, which does not only happen in front of a screen but also involves tangible objects, as of great potential.

Smart environments as a suitable access to computer science

The abbreviation loosely stands for the project title “Smart Environments as a Context for Motivating Educational Offers for an Increasing Share of Female Computer Scientists”. Apart from the Cyber-Physical Systems research group of the DFKI and the University of Bremen, the project also involves the University of Oldenburg, the University for Applied Sciences Hamburg and the OFFIS Institute for Information Technology. One of the smart environments used in the project is the Bremen Ambient Assisted Living Lab (BAALL), an apartment of the next generation including speech control and an intelligent wardrobe developed by the DFKI in Bremen.

In addition to the research on improving computer science education, the SMILE project also includes informational events and workshops that aim at raising interested in and winning students for computer science. The project partners develop suitable up-to-date accesses to topics of information technology related to “smart environments” that address girls and young women. The joint project is funded by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) over a course of three years.

Dr.-Ing. Serge Autexier
German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI)
Cyber-Physical Systems
Phone: +49 421 218 59834

Press contact:
German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI)
Corporate Communications Bremen
Phone: +49 421 178 45 4180

Different sensors and a microcontroller were connected to a houseplant and programmed on a laptop during the SMILE workshop. Source: DFKI GmbH, Photo: Mazyar Seraj