Classroom Technology

Robot Designed to Help Schools Teach Coding Unveiled by Harvard Group

By Anthony Rebora — April 21, 2016 2 min read
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In recognition of the ever-growing role of technology in the economy, states and districts have been scrambling to expand computer-coding offerings in schools. One potential barrier, however, is finding enough K-12 educators with the expertise needed to teach coding lessons.

Now a Harvard team has come out with the prototype of a product designed in part to address that instructional gap: A code-teaching robot.

But rest assured: This isn’t one of those iPad-on-a-Segway contrivances that roam around the classroom in place of a live teacher. This robot—called “Root” and developed by Harvard‘s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering—is a magnetic, hexagonal device that travels across a white board (and performs a wide variety of behaviors) in response to students’ digital commands. It looks to be about 5 or 6 inches in diameter, and it’s meant, along with its accompanying software, to give teachers a “framework” for teaching coding.

Basically, students use an iPad app to program Root’s actions, which—according to a Wired piece—include drawing and erasing figures, accelerating down “racetracks,” and responding in prescribed ways to different colors on the board.

The device was designed for use across K-12 grade levels, with its abilities becoming more complex in proportion to students’ coding skills. When released, the accompanying software is expected to guide students through three different coding levels, starting with graphical icons that young students can use to create simple if-then sequences and moving on gradually to more complex, text-based languages. Wired offers a glimpse of advanced Root studies:

At Level 3, anyone can program Root with real programming languages like Javascript. An adept coder can program Root to do things like scatter when it senses the beam of a flashlight, or play something like Angry Birds on a whiteboard—with real-world physics programmed in."

As an instructional tool, the developers say, Root’s objectives are to get even young students thinking in the logic of coding and to increase engagement in computer science lessons by “bringing coding to life.” Database exercises just don’t do it for many kids, the group suggests.

The hope is that the device can also be integrated with relative ease into lessons even by teachers who don’t have advanced training in coding—and even in subjects other than computer science. A curriculum specialist consulted by Wired goes so far as to suggest using multiple Roots to recreate historical events. (We’ll leave that one for you to figure out.)

But you can’t get even one just yet. The Wyss Institute is still looking for investors and curriculum-development partners to help bring the product to market. According to the Boston Globe, the system is expected to cost $199 for schools and $249 for individuals.

Image Courtesy of Wyss Institute at Harvard University

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.