More than just code: DevTech researches new approaches to STEM education

Tufts University Professor Marina Bers, director of DevTech research group, poses for a portrait. (Courtesy Marina Bers)

There are some skills that are important to everyone at every stage of life, including independent and creative problem-solving and critical thinking.  When should these skills be taught, and how? Professor Marina Umaschi Bers and the team at the Developmental Technologies Research Group (DevTech) are researching an answer to this question and coming to new conclusions that may shape the way young children are taught.

As part of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, DevTech’s research sits at the intersection of technology and early childhood development. Their research findings show the possibility of using innovative educational toys to improve Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education for children.

Umaschi Bers noted that there has been a recent focus on expanding access to STEM education for traditionally underrepresented groups through toys, inundating the market with colorful and creative options. DevTech has applied their findings to develop KIBO, a programmable robot designed for young children, age four to seven, which promotes linear thinking and problem-solving, according to Umaschi Bers. Because the programming blocks are interchangeable, along with pieces of the KIBO robot itself, the possibilities are endless.

KIBO sets itself apart from other STEM education toys in a way that is both refreshing and innovative. For example, KIBO robots can be used by children in a classroom to act out scenes from literary works, integrating literacy and STEM education.

“I think there is something powerful about literacy, not just as a way of thinking, as much as STEM is a way of thinking. Literacy has something else that STEM doesn’t have … Literacy has the power to change the world,” Umaschi Bers said. “We don’t define [DevTech] as STEM people, we define ourselves as literacy people.”

Mitch Rosenberg, CEO of KinderLab Robotics, which manufactures KIBO, explained that KIBO adds a creative side to an otherwise data-driven set of subjects — a combination that he referred to as STEAM, or STEM with art. For young children, this could influence how they approach problems and solutions during the learning process.

Besides the physical KIBO robot, DevTech also developed ScratchJr, a mobile app available for iOS and Android tablets. Using a system of programmable blocks similar to KIBO, characters on the screen can be made to dance, move and sing with ScratchJr. Notably, families can download ScratchJr at no cost, making it accessible to many more homes than a physical robot like KIBO.

Both products are designed to be intuitive to children regardless of language.

“There is the language of the tool itself. For example, ScratchJr is translated into multiple languages,” Umaschi Bers said. “KIBO hasn’t been translated but by its design with pictures, you don’t really have to translate the words [on the programmable blocks].”

Madhu Govind, a graduate research assistant at DevTech, spoke about Family Coding Days, an outreach program designed to educate the community about KIBO and ScratchJr.

“[DevTech] is looking at how children are learning to use our ScratchJr app or our robotics kit [KIBO], so looking at a graphical interface, such as an app, versus a tangible interface which is actual building blocks in a robot,” Govind said.

Govind explained that these outreach events offer an opportunity for DevTech to collect insights on the impact of KIBO and ScratchJr on early learning.

How does learning how to code using those interfaces affect their learning because they are learning to program collaboratively with their family members? What are the roles that children take on and what are the family dynamics like?” Govind said.

Rosenberg said that KIBO has been shipped to 51 countries as of today. Even though there is a large majority shipped domestically, approximately 15 percent of KIBO robots are shipped internationally, the majority being to Canada, the UK and Australia.

Rosenberg also said that although the vast majority of KIBO robots sold went to organizations, such as schools, museums and other educators, about one-third of all robots sold were purchased directly by consumers for private use.

Umaschi Bers described these toys as recreating the experience of a playground, rather than playpen.

“A playground is open-ended. You can have creative play … you can play with others, you interact socially, you develop language, you engage in conflict, and you learn how to resolve the conflict. You are also problem-solving constantly,” Umaschi Bers said. “If you contrast that playground with a playpen, which is a closed limited space with few opportunities for play, the games given to the kid are chosen by the parent … It’s very safe but very limited.”


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