Tufts develops coding app for children

  The Development Technologies (DevTech) Research Group at Tufts is working to develop an iPad and Android application that teaches young children coding basics.

DevTech is working in conjunction with the MIT Media Lab and the Playful Invention Company (PICO) to create the app, ScratchJr, which is expected to be released in 2014, according to PICO Co-Founder Paula Bonta (accent aigu).

“We have a long relationship with the MIT Media Lab, with Mitchel Resnick’s group, and we have spent many years developing digital construction tools for … very young kids,” Bonta said. 

The idea for ScratchJr came from the original app, Scratch, which his group developed several years ago. according to Resnick, the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab.

“My research group at the MIT Media Lab developed Scratch to enable young people, ages eight and up, to program their own interactive stories, games and animations — and, in the process, learn to think creatively, reason systematically and work collaboratively,” he said.

After experiencing success with the initial app, Resnick’s group decided to develop a new app that would reach an even younger age. In order to do so, his lab and PICO teamed up with Marina Bers, the director of Tufts’ DevTech Research Group.

“We believe that learning how to code is a way to express yourself that allows children to think in systematic ways,” she said. “When they are expressing themselves, they are also thinking about steps on problem solving.”

Bonta explained that while Resnick’s group provided much of the development and PICO provided the actual software programming expertise, the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School at Tufts was critical in developing a program useable by children.

“The Tufts team really focused on childhood, that’s their strength, and everything they had to do with starting this very important field test,” she said. “We did six rounds of field tests with kids and that takes a lot of effort and hard work.”

Bers elaborated on the process and explained that it involved both children and their parents.

“We worked with children, we worked with parents and we observed what they were able to do and what they were not able to do,” she said. “We went back and created the design many many times so that it really can be a tool for young children.”

According to Bers, children can not only program their character into doing a series of activities like jumping, dancing and singing, but also can make them come to life using a paint editor, adding their own sounds and photos.

“It gives children the possibility to express themselves by creating a personally meaningful project, and at the same time learning fundamental ideas of computer programming,” she said. 

Resnick noted the importance of young children learning how to code. He explained that coding has long been viewed as something difficult, which only a small part of the population is capable of doing — but that the situation is changing.

“Computer programming or coding is like a new form of writing, a new type of literacy,” he said. “Like writing, when people learn to code, they learn new ways of organizing their thinking, new ways of expressing ideas. When you learn to code you are learning many other things.”

Resnick would like the app to be free. In order to do so, the team has to do significant fundraising. But the group received initial funding from the Lego Foundation, the Code-to-Learn Foundation, British Telecommunications and the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

According to NSF Program Director Elizabeth VanderPutten, NSF gave a significant grant to due to the reach and benefits of ScratchJr.

“This contract can contribute to both understanding of what and how students can learn at this age and provide a useful tool to formal and informal educators,” VanderPutten told the Daily in an email.

Overall, Resnick said the group hoped to raise $60,000 to release an iPad version of the app, an amount they have now surpassed. He hopes that the new app will reinforce design skills and problem solving, and put to use the increasingly frequent use of digital technology by young people

“They use math and language in a meaningful and motivating context, supporting the development of early-childhood numeracy and literacy,” he said. “With ScratchJr, children aren’t just learning to code, they are coding to learn.”

Justin Rheingold contributed reporting to this article.

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