Members of the larger TeRK community are beginning to build their own projects using the Qwerk, along with instructions and software available on the TeRK Web site, whereas members of Nourbakhsh's lab have concentrated on using those tools to develop robots and curricula designed to retain the interest of groups that frequently drop out of traditional computer science courses.
"Retention has always been a problem in introductory computer science classes," Nourbakhsh acknowledges. Computer science is the only field of science and engineering that has not experienced an increase in the enrollment of women over the past two decades. Quite the contrary: the percentage of women granted degrees in computer science has been declining since its peak in 1985. Many in the field view this trend as a crisis, and it is part of the reason that Google, Microsoft and Intel have agreed to support Nourbakhsh's work. All three companies are eager to build a diverse workforce in the coming decades.
"When you look at who enters these classes, it's diverse, it includes women but they drop out early," and you are left with a bunch of male "geeks," Nourbakhsh says. One of the curricula he developed to address this issue used robots in narrative play. "We wanted to incorporate robots into things that are already meaningful. It turns out that girls in middle school are blogging, keeping diaries, etcetera, so we had them create robots that act out how they feel . It's very different from a robot that moves earth or picks up ping-pong balls."
As with other open-source projects that involve software built entirely by volunteers, such as Firefox and Linux, the success or failure of TeRK may ultimately hinge on attracting a pool of programmers and engineers willing to write new code for Qwerk and create new recipes for the hardware necessary to build robots.
"The hardware is important, but the community is the biggest part of this project," LeGrand says. So far, the community looks healthy: Nourbakhsh is about to post the first batch of projects submitted by Qwerk users. It is a varied group, including an ottoman that moves about, a doll that sits on your desk and inflates and deflates depending on whether you have had enough exercise that day, and an ambitious marriage of Qwerk with the Create platform from iRobot, the folks who manufacture Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner.