DevTech Research Group Engages Young Children in Playful Computation

The Developmental Technologies (DevTech) Research Group at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development is part of an effort to make computing accessible to young children.

Two National Science Foundation-funded projects from the DevTech Group are currently in focus: ScratchJr and KIBO. According to DevTech Research Scientists Amanda Strawhacker and Claire Caine and Graduate Research Assistant Amanda Sullivan, ScratchJr is “a collaboration between the DevTech Research Group, the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group, and the Playful Invention Company, with the goal of creating a digital environment (i.e. an iPad app or computer software) for young children ages 5-7 years to explore icon-based computer programming.”

ScratchJr interface screen  / Courtesy of the DevTech Research Group.

ScratchJr interface screen / Courtesy of the DevTech Research Group

KIBO, designed for children ages 4-7, “brings programming with physical objects to the real world,” Dr. Marina Umaschi Bers, Professor in the Department of Child Development, Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Director of the DevTech Research Group, tells Enigma. With KIBO, children manipulate wooden blocks, each of which represents a different command. Children then scan these blocks in sequence to facilitate the output of a robot. “We want children to understand computer programming, but we don’t really want them in front of a screen. We really want them to be playing,” Umaschi Bers says.

Children playing and learning with KIBO / Courtesy of the DevTech Research Group

Children playing and learning with KIBO / Courtesy of the DevTech Research Group

This interdisciplinary venture has a unique internal structure that speaks to the ongoing collaboration within the DevTech Research Group. “We have students from child development, engineering, computer science, and education and others,” Umaschi Bers explains, “we have undergraduate and graduate students … and we have research scientists working together.” DevTech also partners with local educators and administrators to ensure that their technologies not only fit in with current math and literacy curricula, but also that they are introduced to students in engaging ways. Members of the DevTech Group participate in technological development on many levels: developing theories, developing the technologies themselves, and going out into schools to work with teachers and students alike to collect data and integrate their technologies appropriately.

Because these efforts are so interdisciplinary, researchers need to take into account information from various disciplines about teaching computation to such young children. Both ScratchJr and KIBO have a manageable number of commands for children in their target age group. Research from the DevTech group derives from the Positive Technological Development (PTD) theoretical framework, in part designed by Umaschi Bers herself.[1] PTD calls upon theories like Constructionism, which was established by Dr. Seymour Papert, an educator and pioneer of artificial intelligence, and Positive Youth Development, which focuses on promoting positive objectives, like improved competence in sociality, cognition, behavior, and morality.[2]


 

“[C]hildren are held back in their learning because they have a model of learning in which you have either ‘got it’ or ‘got it wrong.’ But when you program a computer you almost never get it right the first time. Learning to be a master programmer is learning to become highly skilled at isolating and correcting bugs … If this way of looking at intellectual products were generalized to how the larger culture thinks about knowledge and its acquisition we might all be less intimidated by our fears of ‘being wrong.’”

                – Dr. Seymour Papert, a proponent of Constructionism [3]


 

Dr. Umaschi Bers got the idea to pursue such projects by noticing a void in the field. “I think [young children] really should be moving around, using their bodies, using their hands,” she says. “I started looking around and there was no match there.” There are many benefits to filling this niche for children in such a young demographic, however.

“[P]rior research has shown that computer programming can help young children with [a] variety of cognitive skills,” Caine, Strawhacker, and Sullivan say, “including number sense, language skills, and visual memory.” Additionally, Umaschi Bers notes that schools implement literacy interventions when children are “very young. When they’re young, they’re curious, they’re open, [and] there are fewer gender differences. … We see a lot of computer science efforts in late elementary and middle and high school, [and they are] actually very late.”

The KIBO robot and Tangible Programming Blocks / Courtesy of the DevTech Research Group.

The KIBO robot and Tangible Programming Blocks / Courtesy of the DevTech Research Group

The public agrees, as the response to ScratchJr and KIBO has been overwhelmingly positive. ScratchJr launched in July and already has over 600,000 downloads, and the Android version of the app came out this past week. The lab was able to start a company to launch KIBO, while both ScratchJr and KIBO have been funded at over 150% of their respective goals on Kickstarter.com.

The DevTech Group is motivated to design technologies for this age group based on the idea that coding is the new literacy. To Caine, Strawhacker, and Sullivan, “this means that children are producers of their own technological content, not just consumers.” Our society teaches “everyone to read and write when they’re very young. We believe that reading and writing are tools to live in the world … it’s the same thing for coding,” Umaschi Bers says. “In the future, understanding how the world works, you will need to understand programming if you need to live in society.” While experts in the DevTech Group note that the T and E of STEM are most neglected in early childhood education, they hope to provide tools to reemphasize technology and engineering. With a focus on fostering intellectual creativity and an eye to the future, the DevTech Research Group continues to use information from a multitude of disciplines to engage children with the technology around them.


[1] Bers, M., Doyle-Lynch, A., and Chau, C. (2012). Positive Technological Development: The Multifaceted Nature of Youth Technology Use towards Improving Self and Society. In C.C. Ching & B.J. Foley (Eds.), Technology, learning, and identity: Research on the development and exploration of selves in a digital world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Catalano, R.F., Berglund, M.L., Ryan, J.A.M., Lonczak, H.S., and Hawkins, J.D. (2002) Positive youth development in the United States: Research findings on evaluations of positive youth development programs. Prevention & Treatment, 5(1), Article 15. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1522-3736.5.1.515a

[3] Papert, S. (1980). Computers and Computer Cultures. In Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas (p. 23). New York: Basic Books.

Sarah Kalinowski
Lead Editor.
Sarah Kalinowski is a senior majoring in biopsychology and minoring in cognitive and brain sciences. She can be reached at sarah.kalinowski@tufts.edu.

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