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Program touts UNM for course in computer science

March 6, 2015

Carlos Lopez of Nex+Gen Academy photographs a robot in the Swarm Robotic's Lab at the computer science event. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Aritlce by:
Albuquerque Journal
by Mike Bush

High school sophomore William Morlan listened intently Tuesday as a University of New Mexico Ph.D. student – with the help of an interactive computer – talked about motion tracking.

Both young men were at UNM’s Centennial Engineering Building for one reason: a shared love of computer science.

Andres Ruiz, the graduate student, came to Albuquerque all the way from Colombia to work on his doctorate in computer science at UNM. He first picked up an interest in the nascent but booming field from his father, an electrical engineer back home. “Just seeing my dad working with his friends, that’s what got me interested,” Ruiz said.

Morlan, who studies computer science at Albuquerque’s Nex+Gen Academy and hopes one day to go into video game programming, thought he saw a way he could apply motion tracking to programming. He’s been interested in computers since he was 10, but that interest has soared in the past two years.

In differing capacities, the two took part in an event sponsored by New Mexico Computer Science for All, a program that seeks to draw students – and teachers – to computer science.

Program manager Maureen Psaila-Dombrowski of the Santa Fe Institute said more than 30 high school teachers have received training this year. Perhaps more importantly, this summer, UNM is offering a course for high school teachers from anywhere in New Mexico, tuition paid.

Right now, about 25 high schools offer computer science classes and most of those have only one teacher.

The aim of this week’s event – which came with all the pizza a hungry high schooler could eat – was to convince the students to consider UNM as the venue for their future education in computer science.

But Morlan is not sure. He definitely plans to study computer science, but his first choice remains the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. UNM is second.

“We would definitely hope he chooses UNM,” said Melanie Moses, computer science and biology professor, and an external faculty member at the Santa Fe Institute. “But we don’t hold it against anyone who places us second only to MIT.”

Moses had just finished demonstrating and explaining how swarm robots – as opposed to individual robots – work. The bulk of her audience was 10 Nex+Gen students, including Morlan, enrolled in Michael Steele’s computer science class. In this case, the five softball-size robots – each carrying an iPod on top – were programed to mimic an ant colony, moving about individually and in concert at the same time.

A bright light in the center of the lab floor served as their nest. After venturing out in an ant-like, random-walk fashion in search of food, they would return to the nest, deposit it, then head out again.

Before the virtual ants were built and programmed, Moses spent two years studying live ants and their movements in the desert south of Albuquerque.

Currently, New Mexico Computer Science for All is hoping to get a green light from NASA to build a new generation of “swarmies,” bigger than the ants, each one carrying a laptop on top instead of an iPod.

But the bottom line is to get more students studying computer science at UNM. There is an urgent need for such scientists nationwide, Moses said, but in New Mexico it is enormous.


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