Applied computing technology has progressed to a level that requires greater programming effort to continue advancing for the benefit of humanity. Many grade school students are showing passion for learning with the help of computers and tablets, but few of them are actually interested in programming. In order to spark their curiosity, students need to be introduced to coding in an engaging and exciting way.

At Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, computing engineer Zivthan Dubrovsky and his team have observed that formative experiences known as sparks help to determine whether students will become interested in coding as a lifetime endeavor. To help grade schools provide this spark, the Wyss team created a 3D printed robot that presents coding in a fun way that makes students eager to learn.

Meet Root – An Educational Robot

robot-coding-1The concept of using robots in the classroom is not new. Lego projects that kids can put together and control through computer interfaces have been around since the late 1980s and now, the popular Arduino kits are used to get children interested in the emerging field of robotics. 

What makes Root special is that it is specifically designed to teach coding. Root’s appearance is hexagonal and friendly; it resembles a Roomba, and this is because Dubrovsky has previously worked with the popular robotic vacuum cleaner.

Root features dozens of actuators and sensors, but only a few are externally visible. There are scanners, magnets and gliders on the bottom of Root, bumpers along the sides, and a simple touch interface on the top of the robot. 

This nimble robot can accommodate a whiteboard marker so that it can glide across surfaces as it draws and erases designs. Root can detect colors, objects, and shapes and more importantly, students can program it to perform fun tasks by using their iPads.

The programming environment that governs Root is called Square. It has three proficiency levels; with the first level, you can touch and tap as well as drag and drop coding statements to make Root come to life with basic functions.

The next level features drag and drop along with programming language that can make Root more animated. If you would like to see Root do incredible stuff, you will want to use level three, which features coding syntax just as in real programming applications.

The Educational Benefits of Root

robot-coding-2Most teachers are already aware of the fact that teaching students how to code at a young age can help them develop skills that will benefit them in other areas of their lives as well. However, many teachers have trouble with teaching such an abstract concept.

As previously mentioned, Dubrovsky and his Harvard team have concluded that a spark is needed, and Root can certainly provide it.

Root is designed to provide a formative experience through intuition and discovery. There is no doubt that students will be interested in a cute robot such as Root, and they will certainly be intrigued to learn about how they can control it. This is the spark and the early exposure you need to provide; the next step would be to observe just how interested your children are in progressing to levels two and three of the Root/Square/iPad system.

If you explain to your students that Root can detect Wi-Fi signals, race other robots and even play short musical sounds, they will have to advance to levels two and three on the Square iPad interface. By the time they are coding IF/THEN logic statements, they are learning about sequences, variables, functions, and loops.

Essentially, they are writing JavaScript for the purpose of seeing Root perform to its limits. If your students are interested in level three of the Square app, you will know that they are strong coding prospects who will not be intimidated by future Python, Arduino, or Visual Basic classes.

The Root system works because it does not attempt to push critical thinking and logic too forcefully. At level one, the Square compiler on the iPad is mostly offering pragmatic approaches to problem solving. 

The Harvard Wyss Institute team is aware that they have built an educational system that is not only very appealing to children; it also encourages them to advance within the Square coding proficiency levels by virtue of not being too limited. To this effect, Root is superior to other educational robots that have limits that students can quickly find.

Wrapping It Up

Root’s advantage is not only its approach to teaching coding but also its ability to let children know if they are good at programming. Computer science classes for grade schools are currently stuck on teaching textbook concepts; this is not going to be of much help for the next generation of coders who need to start with the Root spark before they can get interested in JavaScript.


Patricia Dimick is a freelance writer and tech enthusiast from Denver who likes to keep up with the innovations in the digital world and share her insights with like-minded people. Feel free to reach her @Patricia_Dimick

Photos are screenshots from a video at https://wyss.harvard.edu/technology/root/

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