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One Little Robot, Big Hopes for Digital Literacy

Olin alumnus Raphael Cherney, Zivthan ‘Zee’ Dubrovsky, and Radhika Nagpal—co-founders of Root, a robot that teaches children to code—are trying to change the world. But first they have to fully fund their Kickstarter project. Raising $250,000 would enable them to put into production a powerful (but decidedly cute) little robot that could change the future of digital literacy. How? By teaching children as young as 6 and straight through high school how to code. “We’re going to give an entire generation the ability to understand how digital technology works,” says Dubrovsky, who leads the robotics lab at Harvard’s Wyss Institute—which played a pivotal role in setting down Root’s roots.

As did Olin: In Cherney’s last semester on campus in 2011, he worked with Nagpal, a professor of computer science at Harvard and a faculty member at the Wyss, to build a prototype for a magnetic robot. “I was looking for a fun and interesting project,” Cherney says, and Nagpal was interested in a whiteboard-climbing robot for research. He finished up the project over the summer, then left for Switzerland to complete his master’s degree. Meanwhile, back at the Wyss, Dubrovsky happened to see the robot in Nagpal’s office. “Zee thought there was some potential there to get the product into schools. So I joined him, and we started trying to figure out how this could be a useful learning tool,” says Cherney.

In the last three years, the team at the Wyss conducted exploratory work in classrooms, talking to teachers and children to find out what coding tools they use, how exactly they’re employed and when. With that information, the Root team has been refining 3D-printed prototypes of the robot and fine-tuning its interface, called Square, which puts the basics of coding into the hands of children before they even know how to read and write. Beginning with a series of if-then commands (run on an iPad app), children can program Root to draw or create, race around a track, play music, or explore its surroundings with more than 50 sensors and actuators. While clinging to a magnetic whiteboard, literally climbing walls, Root can teach events, sequences, loops, states, functions, priorities, timing, and program stepping. For children, it’s also irresistibly fun and intuitive.

With all that ease and opportunity come design challenges, of course: For elementary school teachers, most of whom have not studied computer science, Root has to be “as easy as opening an iPad app,” says Dubrovsky. There’s also a real matter of practicality in the classroom, “where teachers need to be able to rob 15-20 minutes wherever they can and not retool their classroom for each lesson,” he says. In order for Root to get air time in those early elementary classrooms, it must be quick and easy to launch. But the grow-with-you robot also needs to be scalable and sufficiently robust to retain the interest of teenagers—and throughout those critical intervening years.

The team realized that the real challenge isn’t simply to build a robot to reach kindergartners, or one for college students—but one robot that transcends all those years, offering high quality experience at every step along the way, while also avoiding pitfalls such as gender disparity. “If the wheels are visible, for example, it can be seen as a toy for boys,” Cherney says. “So we hid the wheels to make it more universal. We wanted it to be cute and interesting to a young kid but not off-putting to a high schooler. We’re trying to balance a lot of things on the hardware side and the software side.”

The team is facing these challenges with collective consumer product experiences at iRobot, Sonos, and Apple, and software and education skills developed at Microsoft, Disney, Project Lead the Way, Harvard, and MIT. They formed a startup, Scansorial, in anticipation of bringing Root to market.

But the real progress will begin when Root finds its way into the hands of the next generation of programmers. “To me the most exciting part will be when other people start doing things that we haven’t thought of yet,” Cherney says. “Every time we take it to a new place with new eyes, they bring in other experiences or ways of thinking about how to use this tool to create something fun and interesting. I’m excited to get root out into the world and see what others do with it,” he says.