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Harvard Robot Gets to ‘Root’ of Coding


Ask any kid what they want to be when they grow up, and doctor, fireman, Elsa from Frozen, and movie star probably comes before “computer scientist.” But a new effort from Harvard’s Wyss Institute aims to encourage and empower the next generation of coders.

The Wyss Institute developed Root, an adorable robot that drives and draws on classroom whiteboards to encourage social learning and freeform creativity.

Unlike structured websites that teach coding as an individual activity, coding with robots is “an inherently dynamic experience,” the product website said. “Robot, environment, and students all react to each other, stimulating students to come up with diverse solutions and challenges together.”

Chock full of electronics—magnets, accelerometer, gyroscope, wheel encoders, multicolor LEDs—the pint-sized droid moves with ease, recognizing and responding to colors, light sources, and the physical world.

But none of that matters without Square, the accompanying programming platform that lets students work at three levels: simple graphical blocks, sophisticated interconnections, and full text coding.

Root is designed to fit into every classroom, based on the tech ecosystem already available—wireless Internet, shared tablets, and magnetic whiteboards.

“People love robots,” the Root site said. “They have a powerful appeal to all ages and demographics, making interactions and relationships with them far more compelling than images confined to a computer screen.”

Reserve a Root robot for the classroom or home by joining the mailing list; the first 1,000 people to sign up can snag a coding contraption for $199.

In the meantime, the Wyss Institute is currently fundraising ahead of production, and expects the device will be available early next year.

In February, President Obama announced a $4 billionComputer Science For All initiative, hoping to turn K-12 students in the US from digital consumers to creators. By 2018, 51 percent of all STEM jobs are expected to be in computer science-related fields. But a majority of schools in the US do not offer programming and coding classes; those folks who do have access to such courses tend to be mostly white males.

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