Coursework: adding a pop culture twist to computer science class

He doesn’t play chess. And he doesn’t watch The Big Bang Theory. So how did computer science student Patrick Hartman end up tops in a class assignment for an online chess tournament modelled after the TV sitcom?

Speed and strategy, says Hartman. His program won 53 of 58 games in a round-robin tournament run by Prof. Stefan Kremer, School of Computer Science, for “Introduction to Intelligent Systems,” a third-year artificial intelligence (AI) course.

In the process, Hartman and his classmates learned more about AI — the ultimate goal for Kremer, who added the pop culture twist as another way to engage students in a regular course assignment to write chess-playing programs.

“My goal is to train students to be able to solve interesting computing problems,” says, Kremer. He adds that programming machines to play games is a longstanding tradition in AI courses.

His AI assignments already involved games, puzzles and problem-solving. For this project, he assigned students to write chess-playing programs modelled after a chess version developed by the character Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory.

Unlike Sheldon’s three-player game that uses a three-sided board, Kremer stuck with a simpler two-player version. But he borrowed the sitcom’s made-up chess pieces complete with their unorthodox properties. For example, the serpent “poisons” adjacent pieces and the catapult launches other pieces to land elsewhere on the board.

After his students wrote their programs, he pitted those agents against each other in an online, round-robin tournament of games lasting up to two minutes each.

“I liked the idea of competition,” says Hartman, who aimed to write a program that “thought” its way quickly through possible moves and counterattacks. “It’s chess but it’s more involved than chess. There’s a lot that could happen, a lot of moves to consider and different strategies.” – ANDREW VOWLES