On a hot morning in July, a sleepy John Crerar Library starts to rouse as students arrive for Introduction to Robot Programming and Design, a college-level summer course for Chicago Public Schools rising seniors. Since Crerar’s renovation five years ago, the University Library’s sciences collections, housed here since 1984, have shared the building with the Department of Computer Science. Hustling and bustling from September to June, Crerar is several notches quieter now.
On the first floor is the Computer Science Instructional Laboratory, with computer stations and classrooms. The lab doesn’t officially open until 10, the same time that class begins, but early-arriving students cajole a building manager into unlocking the glass doors a few minutes before the hour.
The students have traveled to Crerar from all over the city. They’re Collegiate Scholars, enrolled in a program started by the Office of Community Affairs (now the Office of Civic Engagement) in 2003 to help academically talented, intellectually curious Chicago Public Schools students prepare for and succeed at selective four-year colleges. The Collegiate Scholars Program admits 50 rising sophomores each May. Over the next three years, they take summer courses like this one, many taught by UChicago faculty, and have access to dozens of workshops and activities during the school year—on academic subjects, college exploration and readiness, leadership, community service, and more.
The classroom for this course is organized into a three-by-three grid of tables, each holding a ClicBot robot kit the size of a large shoebox. ClicBot, which retails for about $450, is an educational coding robot. Its modular parts—“brain,” joints, wheels, grasper, and so on—can be clicked together in hundreds of different configurations. ClicBot is the beating—sometimes talking, sometimes rolling—heart of Introduction to Robot Programming and Design, a course with little traditional instruction but much problem-solving in small groups.
That hands-on ethic, says instructor Sarah Sebo, is key to what the course wants to give students: their first exposure to programming and robotics plus the confidence, excitement, and sheer fun of seeing a ClicBot do what they programmed it to do. Sebo, an assistant professor of computer science who studies the psychology of human-robot interactions, is one of nine UChicago faculty members teaching Collegiate Scholars this summer. Three doctoral students from Sebo’s lab group are coteaching the course with her.
This story was first published by The University of Chicago Magazine.