Solution Overview

What is the name of your organization?

The Alice Project

What is the name of your solution?

Alice Wonderland Forum

Provide a one-line summary of your solution.

A new model for providing STEM support, administered by role model mentors and augmented by AI. We want to ensure that underrepresented learners of computer science never have to face a technical problem alone.

What specific problem are you solving?

We are addressing the drop off rate of girls in computer science in middle school through college. We have been addressing this challenge for the past 10 years with the Alice language and software, which has been proven to increase success in introductory computer science classes. Alice is a visual programming language and platform that has learners engage in creating 3D scenes and virtual worlds while also learning to do something hard, programming. Alice is one of the few introductory tools that facilitates a transition to Java programming, a foundational language taught in the APCSA course.

At the heart of programming is the skill and determination to repeatedly solve problems. To build confidence and skill in this area, students have to be exposed to challenging problems and scaffolded with support to solve those problems. In the real world, programmers spend a lot of time on Google, Stack overflow, Reddit and other forums asking their questions and debugging code. Yet inexperienced students, especially girls, may run into roadblocks and assume they aren't smart enough since they don't have a ready solution.

The contention is that we must simplify curriculum, make it easier and more fun so it will be more accessible to a wider audience. The Alice team believes that we can engage students in the rigorous concepts as long as we give them compelling reasons to engage.

The kind of programming that Alice affords is open ended in nature, engaging students in creative storytelling as they learn to code. Such work goes beyond fixed problem sets with template answers. This also makes it more time consuming for teachers to troubleshoot as each student's approach will be unique. 

The two problem areas we are focused on:

-supporting K-12 teachers in teaching computer science curriculum

-providing continuity through a CS pathway

What is your solution?

The Alice Wonderland Forum is a web based help desk staffed by role model volunteers who are either advanced computer science students or working in the industry. It will be several phase solution. The first step will be serve students specifically learning with Alice. The second phase will be to broaden the forum to support other widely used technologies and languages.

The solution is based on the premise that we should not water down the challenge of learning to code but we should scale up the encouragement and support, while recognizing the real limits of our classrooms and home environments.

This will be a safe, inclusive and encouraging destination to get support with tackling hard problems. It is an online forum and community staffed by volunteer mentors utilizing AI to assist in their responses. It has a strongly stated vision and value system of positive encouragement in problem solving. 

By phase 2, we will extend to a small set of technologies including the Alice Language, Java and Python that girls are being exposed to in middle school and high school classes.

We will use AI to augment and archive standard responses which makes it faster to respond. We aim to respond to every question within 24 hours. It is highly curated and filtered, with anonymous membership for minors. 

Our volunteers will be featured profiles so that learners can see who is helping them and be inspired by their career paths.

Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?

Our target population starts with middle school girls learning Alice and broadens to include girls in high school and college transitioning to other languages like Java and Python,.

To understand their needs, we work directly with students and educators who use Alice software; Currently, we engage directly with students via existing forum software and email. We do virtual and live workshops to better understand their needs.

The solution hopes to provide programming support at scale, in a way that is more approachable for our target audience.

How are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

Our greatest asset in providing this solution is access to a network of successful female and minorities working and studying in STEM and computer science. As the Alice Project is housed at the Entertainment Technology Center of Carnegie Mellon. We see graduate students and alumni come and go, gaining credentials and moving on into the industry. Many of them are looking for a way to give back. As with most busy graduates and professionals, they are limited in how they can best serve. This forum provides a way for them to serve a few hours a month, to reach audiences nationally or worldwide and to best utilize their skillsets. With MIT Solve, we also hope to grow that network and have a large pool of STEM experts and role models.

Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?

  • Support K-12 educators in effectively teaching and engaging girls in STEM in classroom or afterschool settings.

In what city and state is your solution team headquartered?

Pittsburgh, PA, USA

What is your solution’s stage of development?

Growth: An organization with an established product, service, or business model that is rolled out in one or more communities

How many people does your solution currently serve?

We have served over a million students through The Alice Project. Alice 3 was launched in 2008 and continues to be a foundational tool for computer science and a mediated transfer to learning Java. Every year, we have an additional 150K installs.

Why are you applying to the Challenge?

We want to grow our network to have a robust pool of forum volunteers and role model mentors.

We humbly want to learn more about the communities and schools that we serve. 

We want to find more partners to increase the impact of our services.

Who is the Team Lead for your solution?

Melanie Lam

How is your Team Lead connected to the community or communities in which your project is based?

We reach out to our educator community through conferences, in person and virtual workshops. We do play testing by reaching out to local schools in the greater Pittsburgh area.

More About Your Solution

What makes your solution innovative?

Our solution takes the traditional online forum (Stack Overflow, Reddit) and augments it with the power of AI language models and real mentors so that it can be launched from day 1 as a helpful resource even as we scale and build up the community.

Once we gain traction as an one-stop support center, we can start to build community around specific technologies and platforms, for instance, having Ruby on Rails mentors, or Xcode App mentors.

This changes the market in that we can harness the ability and time that volunteer mentors can provide and use that to serve as many learners (and educators) as possible, rather than a solution that is limited by physical location and individual scheduling.

What are your impact goals for the next year and the next five years, and how will you achieve them?

To maximize our impact, we would like to work with organizations who are already doing the work of providing STEM education to learners. These can be schools, after-school programs, camps, clubs. As a beta launch, we would like to enroll 50 organizations, serving up to 25000 learners and educators. To support these learners, we will recruit at least 50 mentors.

In five years, we would like to be serving 2000 schools and organizations (with an average school size of 500, we should be accessible to 1 million learners and educators)

We will have built in filtering to prevent transmission of any personally identifying information, and will also put the onus on the organizations to emphasize safe online practices to their learners.

Our finite resource will be our volunteer mentors.

We will provide high quality training and templates to our mentors to minimize variability. It must be emphasized that the goal is not to provide solutions to learners but to walk them through the problem-solving process. This may include teaching them how to write their queries or providing a second set of eyes to look for problems in code.

Describe in simple terms how and why you expect your solution to have an impact on the problem.

If one mentor sitting next to a student can be effective at helping that student surmount problems, we hope to grow and multiply that effect with the Alice Wonderland Forum. We hope to be the go-to site for our educators as they will know it is a safe and reliable place to direct their students.

If your solution is tech-based, describe the core technology that powers your solution.

While this solution relies on a web interface and existing ChatGPT 4 technology, the real value here is in human mentor behind the keyboard who takes solutions and information churned out and applies it appropriately to the questions asked.

Which of the following categories best describes your solution?

A new application of an existing technology

Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:

  • Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning

In which US states does your solution currently operate?

Pennsylvania, California

In which US states will your solution be operating within the next year?

Pennsylvania, California

Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?

Other, including part of a larger organization (please explain below)

If you selected Other, please explain here.

The Alice Project resides at Carnegie Mellon University. Carnegie Mellon provides much of the infrastructure like hosting and facilities for our project and solution.

How many people work on your solution team?

2 full time staff

2 contractors

4 part time support staff

How long have you been working on your solution?

2 years

What is your approach to incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusivity into your work?

The key way that we would approach DEI is by recruiting female and minority mentors in STEM fields to be mentors and role models.

Your Business Model & Funding

What is your business model?

We are a non-profit funded in part by corporate gifts and grants and by our parent institution.

With our funding, we do ongoing improvements of The Alice Platform, 

Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, to other organizations, or to the government?

Organizations (B2B)

Solution Team

  • Melanie Lam Director of The Alice Project, The Alice Project
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