Harvard Team Developing ‘Root’ Robot to Teach Coding

(Photo: Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

(Photo: Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

The robotics team at Harvard's Wyss Institute has announced the creation of a new robot built in the hopes of helping children and adults alike to learn how to code.

Root is an educational robot that comes in the shape of a small hexagon similar in fashion to the vacuuming robot Roomba. The bottom of Root is lined with scanners and there are bumpers along the sides with a touch interface on its top. Simple commands allow the robot to crawl along the floor, draw patterns, and avoid obstacles.

Root is not only aware when it is on a magnetic surface, but also has a dry-erase marker holder on it, allowing the robot to vertically cling to a whiteboard, and not only write on it but erase it as well. It is through the whiteboard, an iPad, and an easy to learn language that children can learn to code by teaching Root to do new things.

The robot is based on the Scratch-like Square programming environment. Running on the iPad, it hopes to transition children from the drag-and-drop coding to using a more classic, text-based coding, writes Al Plumlier for The Verge. Square, an iOS tablet app, comes with a variety of proficiency levels in the hopes of helping users to learn the basics of programming.

The first level of proficiency uses drag-and-drop blocks that show how Root will react if a certain event is placed in, such as "turn left." Meanwhile, level two makes use of drag-and-drop boxes in addition to a programming language in order to show how different events would appear as coding. Level three is traditional text coding, writes Kellen Beck for Mashable.

Team leader Zivthan Dubrovsky said it is possible to switch between the three levels at any point.

"So a program you made in level one, you can convert to level two, and than you can convert that to JavaScript [level three]," he said.

He added that the ability to slide between levels allows the user to see exactly how lines of code cause the robot to perform individual tasks.

"So when somebody's coding in Javascript, they now have a visual mindframe of what loops, sequences, functions, priorities and variables are," Dubrovsky said.

While a number of coding tools have been created in the past in an effort to help children learn to code, Root differs from these endeavors because it is not simply for academic purposes but instead was designed for consumers. The team at Harvard worked to determine how a product could be introduced to the consumer market, which it accomplished because team members have expertise in the industry.

It is unknown when the robot will be available for purchase because the robotics team is still researching it. At the moment, curriculum is being created for the robot and researchers are "seeking the right partner" to bring Root to the public.

"We've met with teachers, we've gone into classrooms," Dubrovsky says. It's time now, he says, to prepare Root for the world beyond Harvard.

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