dem gen robot dog
Students laugh at the antics of a robotic dog that Hunter programmed.

Though he only stands about two feet tall, Looney the Robot is doing a lot to promote computer science in Montana.  He travels the state with MSU Computer Science professor Hunter Lloyd as part of the Demand Generation initiative, visiting schools and exposing students of all ages to the field of computer science and robotics.  In the 2014-15 school year, Hunter and Looney presented at 56 school assemblies and were seen by over 15,000 Montana students, with the intention of showing these students how fun and interesting robotics can be so that more of them will choose to study computer science in college.  It seems to be working.  In the past two years since Looney and Hunter have been touring, CS enrollment has increased significantly at Montana colleges: 53% at MSU, 54% at Montana Tech, and 27% at U of M.

Not only do the presentations peak an interest in computer science, but the students love them!  At a recent assembly for third and fifth graders in Bozeman, Hunter opened with a demonstration of a project where a small robotic car is programmed to drive itself along a certain route.  He explained how this was a project for one of his classes, and that part of computer programming is solving problems (such as when the car drove over a toy school bus instead of around it, to roaring laughter from the students).  He continued to demonstrate various cameras, 3D modeling, and robots, ending with Looney (to cheers from the students) and Ocean, a similar robot with other programs.  Each of these items brought huge applause and laughs from the audience – in fact, the response when Looney danced to “Gangnam Style” was almost deafening!

Amidst the cheering and impressive displays, Hunter pointed out the incredible progress that has been made in the field of computer science.  He emphasized what the future will be like in terms of computers and technology, such as cars that drive themselves.  He amazed the students by explaining how current robots can be controlled by the Wii or Xbox remote.  And he explained how Montana has great potential to create leaders in this field, and has already done so.  The kids were inspired to hear about people like Eric Reynolds, a Bozemanite who worked on movies like The Hobbit to create the computer-animated 3D characters, and two of the robotics world champions in the past four years, who came from the small Montana towns of Ronan and Sun River.  All of this illustrated for the students how exciting and accessible the field of computer science can be, no matter where you live.  And it pointed back to studying computer science in college.

Young kids are full of excitement.  What better time to introduce exciting fields they can pursue when they grow up, fields that will also allow them to stay in Montana and work high-paying jobs that serve their communities?  Hunter and Looney have been doing an excellent job exposing our students to the fields of computer science and robotics, and I encourage you to take advantage of any opportunity you get to see, or have your kids see, one of their presentations.  To schedule Hunter and Looney to visit your school, call Demand Generation coordinator Sharlyn at 406-994-4794.