The Tufts-based DevTech Research Group’s lab, located in the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School building on College Ave., is in the business of creating unique learning experiences for kids. Currently, the lab focuses on creating developmentally appropriate technologies for young children. According to Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study Professor Marina Bers, the lab, which came together in 2008, initially focused on designing technologies for adolescents, and it now focuses on young children ages 4-7.
“I created DevTech because I felt that it was important to have a child development department that thinks about children and also thinks about the technologies,” Bers said.
The DevTech team consists of a variety of students — graduate, undergraduate and doctorate — from a number of different majors. They work together in the lab as well as on site and interview educators and students in order to create lesson plans that incorporate the technologies they research into the classroom.
Mentorship is an important component of work in the lab, according to Mollie Elkin, a first-year master’s student who started studying in the lab as an undergraduate during her sophomore year as a child development major and architectural studies minor.
“I love the dynamics in the lab,” said Elkin. “I kind of remember when I was an undergrad and the kind of supports that I really appreciated and things that drive students to be helpful. I try to provide that back to the students that I work with and give them direction as much as possible, but also give as much freedom.”
Several of the students working in DevTech’s lab have taken CD 143: Teaching Robotics in an Urban School. According to Elkin, the class consists of about 28 students who go out to two schools in Central Falls, R.I. to help train teachers on using DevTech’s products, including its interactive robot KIBO.
KIBO, which launched last June, is a wheeled robot whose movements students can “program” using wooden blocks. According to Bers, the system gives kids a hands-on experience that lets them think like a programmer in a playful, visual atmosphere.
“We don’t want young children in front of a screen, we want them having [the same] experiences as they have in the playroom,” said Bers. “Talking with others, interacting and playing.”
To direct KIBO’s actions, children put together blocks in a series and use the robot to scan them.
“You put together your wooden blocks and then with your robot you scan the wooden blocks, and now your robot will do whatever,” Bers said. “So it’s similar ideas about logical thinking, problem solving, cause and effect sequencing, competition and thinking, but with a particular platform, a platform that allows for interaction and inclusion of the arts as well as just programming.”
Another project of DevTech’s, called ScratchJr, was released in 2014 as a tablet app to help young children learn how to use an introductory programming language to create their own stories. According to DevTech’s website, the program, developed in conjunction with MIT Media Labs and supported through a grant from the National Science Foundation, was created to help acknowledge programming as a “new type of literacy.”
ScratchJr, a free app, has amassed over 600,000 downloads across the world, a number that’s still increasing, according to Bers.
“It allows very young students to understand coding and apply their coding skills to create stories, to create games … to create anything,” said Bers.
Bers said that she hopes to hold “family days” for DevTech’s products, during which parents and kids can experiment with them together.
“We really want to … provide the resources so these tools are used,” she said. “Creating family days for little kids to come with their parents are some opportunities for helping early childhood educators know how to use robotics.”
DevTech’s ability both to design technologies and carry out research to help improve its products is central to its goal of creating developmentally appropriate products for young children. The implementation of technology in early childhood is something that many students, like junior Danielle DiPaola, are particularly interested in.
“Working toward this idea of integrating technology into education at such an early age is really important.” said DiPaola, an engineering psychology major, engineering education minor and DevTech team member. “I’m an engineering major, and I’d wish that I’d had that kind of intervention … when I was younger.”
According to Bers, one of the main challenges that DevTech faces is working their products into relationships between parents or teachers and kids.
“The challenge that we have is that technology is not enough,” said Bers. “So we need to train teachers, early childhood teachers and we need to train parents. We need to develop materials and resources for them to be able to work with kids. We want them to use technology in a way that is developmentally appropriate.”
For many team members, the best moments are often when kids finally grasp the concept of a product and solve a problem.
“I feel like when I’m out in the classroom and you’re working with kids and all of a sudden [they] tell that they just got it, that’s always just a really exciting moment,” said Elkin. “You see that progression, and that’s really exciting and what I really like about the hand-on nature of our lab. It’s nice having both in-classroom time and also in-lab time.”
According to DiPaola, one of DevTech’s main aims is the integration of other aspects of education into their products, in order to create a multifaceted learning platform.
“Marina, she’s starting things as early as four, which is unbelievable,” said DiPaola. “She believes that you shouldn’t just put kids in a computer lab and have them learn, but you should have technology integrated in everything that they do.”
DiPaola said that some DevTech projects try to help children look at history and culture through a technological lens, instead of simply focusing on sci/tech.
“One of the projects that I was working on, we went into a classroom that was learning about the [annual Iditarod sled dog] race, and we got to actually make robots that simulated the Iditarod race,” she said. “It was combining history, culture and things that you are learning with robotics. I think that that is the way the world is going, and I think that’s really important to make them fit together.”
As today’s world becomes increasingly tech-centered, Bers and DevTech look to continue preparing young children to thrive in it.
“[The] technologies are here,” said Bers. “Like it or not, they are here. So we better design things that will help children learn in ways that are age appropriate … it’s really using all kinds of things that will help students learn and develop in positive ways.”