Research Report: Computer scientists create game to teach programming

Teaching computer science below the college level is difficult, because of few qualified instructors for students in elementary to high school. So, a computer scientist at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego and his graduate students set out to reach students outside of the classroom. The result is CodeSpells; a video game designed to keep children engaged while they cope with the challenges of learning programming.

Researchers tested the game with 40 girls, ages 10-12, who had never been instructed in programming. Within one hour of play, the girls had mastered basic components of Java — one of the most common programming languages — and used this new knowledge to create additional ways of playing the game.

Researchers are conducting further case studies in San Diego elementary schools. The ultimate goal is to release the game for free to any educational institution requesting it.

Initial findings presented at a SIGCSE (Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education) conference.

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• Gordon supercomputer crunches large hadron collider data

Gordon, a unique data-intensive supercomputer launched last year by the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UCSD, completed its most data-intensive task to date: rapidly processing raw data from almost one billion particle collisions as part of a project to help define the future research agenda for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator.

Gordon has been providing auxiliary computing capacity by processing massive data sets generated by one of two large general-purpose particle detectors at the LHC used by researchers to find the elusive Higgs particle.

Around-the-clock data processing run on Gordon was completed in about four weeks time, making the data available for analysis several months ahead of schedule. About 1.7 million core hours — or about 15 percent of Gordon’s total compute capacity — were dedicated to this task, with more than 125 terabytes of data streaming through Gordon’s nodes. One terabyte of data, or one trillion bytes, equals the information printed on paper made from 50,000 trees.

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• Smartphone app aides border crossings

A team of UCSD computer science students took home third place at the 2013 Mobile World Congress (MWC) for its “Best Time to Cross the Border” app. The judges were from technology powerhouses such as Facebook and China Mobile.

Available for iPhone and Android, the app uses real-time, crowd-sourced information about border wait times to help others decide the best time to cross into Mexico or Canada by car or truck, thereby reducing the some $17 billion in annual losses and 250,000 tons of carbon emissions that result from lengthy border waits.

Aside from its practical applications, the MWC judges praised the UCSD app because “it’s a social, noble thing to do and … wasn’t only based on making money.”

The app has about 30,000 users and is now the 11th most popular travel app among iPhone users in Mexico and Canada.

The student work was conducted in the Mobile Applications Group at Qualcomm Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at the UCSD division of Calit2.

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Lynne Friedmann is a science

writer based in Solana Beach.