Nov 06 2013

Can Robots Teach Kids to Code?

Former Google executive launches a company to get students interested in computer programming.

I had all kinds of toys as a kid — Transformers, Star Wars action figures, Nerf guns, an Atari. I could go on. Though none of them captured my imagination like the Tomy Verbot

The stout little robot had a plastic bubble for a head and came equipped with a voice-controlled remote into which I would speak basic commands — Forward, Back, Pick up, Put down, Smile. Assuming that I relayed these commands slowly and clearly (this was the mid-1980s and the technology wasn’t exactly NASA-grade), the tiny robot — it looked like a poor man’s R2D2 — would do my bidding, albeit clumsily.

As technology has evolved, so too has the capability of our robotics. At least that’s what former Google executive Vikas Gupta was banking on when he left the search engine to launch Play-i, a well-funded startup that uses toy robots to teach children to code.

As recently reported by technology blog TechCrunch, Gupta’s latest venture — he sold his first company to Google for a reported $70 million in 2010 — has produced prototypes for two robots — Bo and Yana — both of which can be programmed to respond to simple commands via an app installed on your smartphone or tablet device.

In a video about the prototypes, Kikki Prottsman, veteran educator and founder of Thinkersmith, a computer learning company, says the robots “teach the basics of computer programming in one of the best way possible — problem solving through hands-on playtime.”  

To be clear: The robots don't actually teach coding. But Gupta says they are designed to instill a sense of storytelling and narrative in younger learners — and to provide the foundational skills needed to eventually master more advanced programming skills. 

While TechCrunch reporter Eliza Brooke points out that Bo and Yana are far from the first robots “to gamify” coding skills for younger learners — she mentions other products, including Bee-Bot and the Move the Turtle app — it’s pretty clear that these latest designs have come a long way since Verbot.

What do you think? Are robots a good way to get students interested in coding? Tell us in the comments.


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