Robot Named Root Poised to Broaden Coding Education

(Photo: Harvard)

(Photo: Harvard)

A new 3D printed robot has been created by engineers inside Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Learning, and it could change the way people learn to code.

About the size of a hexagonal hockey puck, Root is able to glide up and down whiteboards through the use of magnets, drawing, erasing, beeping, and flashing. It can also react to a variety of different elements, including light and color. Designed to be used by a range of age groups from kindergarten through college, the device follows instructions and commands sent to it from Square, the app that was designed specifically for use with the robot.

"Whiteboards are a common denominator for all classrooms — you can just stick a robot on there with zero set-up. It doesn't disrupt a classroom," says Zivthan Dubrovsky, who runs the Wyss Institute's robotics platform.

The idea is to offer students the chance to learn to write programs that range in complexity, resulting in Root moving, drawing, or following a multitude of other commands, which are all transmitted through Bluetooth from a tablet. In addition to responding to cues such as light, color, and touch, the robot comes equipped with LEDs that light up on command and can even be programmed to play musical notes. While kindergarteners may find it amusing just to teach Root how to drive, eighth graders may begin to move the device through a game board or even design their own game, writes Erin Blakemore for The Week.

Dubrovsky notes that one of the key elements to the success of Root is the relationship it promotes between robot and user. "You can have very rich human-robot interactions that are social," he notes, looking back on his days at iRobot, the company responsibly for the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. He said that while he was with the company, he noticed customers would name their robots and in some cases decorate them. Root promotes the same emotional connection since it can be drawn on to resemble a face, and it is capable of making noise such as chirping, moving, or blinking, in response to user commands.

Root is used in conjunction with a companion app, Square, allowing users to code through the use of graphical blocks as well as more complicated instructions. Advanced users can also use Javascript to have the tablet "talk" to Root.

Dubrovsky has called Root "the robot that's going to empower the next generation of coders." Coming with a price tag of around $200 when it becomes available for purchase next year, the robot offers teachers the ability to become coding instructors without additional training or expensive overhead.

"Our real vision is to unify the coding movement," says Dubrovsky. "We don't want [our software] to be the only way to program the robot. I don't want the world to think we've solved the only way to learn coding — we want the robot to work with whatever coding platform exists out there. Simple, elegant hardware can unify all of those [coding experiences] into something wonderful."

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