The Alice Middle East program that has been developed by a research team at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q) will be introduced at several Pakistani schools this year.
The program uses graphics and animation to teach basic computing concepts even if students are unfamiliar with programming languages.
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Dr. Saquib Razak — a computer scientist of Pakistani origin — helped to develop the Alice Middle East team since it began more than a decade ago. During this time, he has seen the need for Computer Science education to grow. While discussing the program with faculty members and the media, he said,
During this pandemic, we have seen how technology and innovation can build bridges between children and teachers, workers and employers, and friends and family who are physically distant. As the next generation looks ahead to their future studies and careers, computing skills will be necessary for nearly any field they choose.
Dr. Razak is an Associate Teaching Professor of Computer Science at CMU-Q and is the Associate Area Head of the CMU-Q Computer Science Program. He also serves as the Co-director of the Hamad Bin Jassim Center that oversees the Alice Middle East program. About 10 percent of CMU-Q’s alumni are from Pakistan and many have returned to their home country to pursue their careers.
Expanding to Pakistan
Dr. Razak had traveled to Pakistan before the pandemic to introduce the Alice-based curriculum to schools and organizations across the country. Several schools had shown an interest in the curriculum while recognizing the importance of computational thinking, logical reasoning, and 21st-century skills in middle school education.
The curriculum defines what should be taught, but there is another integral component: effective delivery by trained and knowledgeable teachers. This is crucial so that educators can keep the students engaged and guide them as they learn.
In 2020, Dr. Razak had trained teachers from a group of private schools in Pakistan to use the Alice program to teach computing. When the academic year starts, the program will be taught to roughly 20,000 students in middle schools.
Before Pakistan, Alice Had Come to Qatar
The Alice programming environment was originally developed by researchers on CMU-Q’s main campus. Instead of using a programming language that can be difficult for school children, Alice employs graphics, animations, and a drag-and-drop environment to guide students through programming concepts.
In 2008, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser had expressed an interest in bringing Alice to Qatar. Through a grant from the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), Dr. Razak and a team of researchers localized Alice to the Middle East context by creating curricula in Arabic and English and developing teaching resources. In 2012, his team piloted Alice Middle East at a private school in Qatar.
Each year, the schools teaching Alice grew, and the team used feedback from teachers and students to hone the learning materials.
In 2018, Qatar’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education incorporated Alice Middle East into the Information Communication Technology (ICT) curriculum for government schools. Today, Alice is taught to more than 5000 students per year in either English or Arabic.
Later on, Dr. Razak started developing the original Alice learning modules into a comprehensive three-year curriculum.
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Dr. Razak now serves as an advisor to the National Curriculum Committee for Pakistan’s Ministry of Education and Professional Training and is designing a national curriculum for middle school Computer Studies.
“I am very excited about the computing portion of the Single National Curriculum”, he said.