Coding, software development and other computer science skills are some of the most prized assets for job seekers in today’s increasingly digital world. However, there simply aren’t enough qualified workers to fill all the openings; in fact, there are currently more than 517,000 open computer science jobs across the country, but last year, less than 43,000 computer science graduates joined the workforce, according to the nonprofit Code.org. That puts an unnecessary drain on our economy and our labor force.
One group of Harvard-trained engineers-turned-entrepreneurs is looking to close that gap by educating the next generation of American coders, and they’re enlisting the help of – what else – robots.
Based in Cambridge, Mass., Scansorial is the company behind Root, a new robot designed to more easily and effectively teach coding to individuals of any age and education level. Born out of technology that was designed by mechanical engineers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute, Root is an interactive and seemingly gravity-defying robot comprised of more than 50 sensors that lets users program its movements through basic coding mechanisms, working their way up through proficiency levels.
“Right now we are not inspiring kids to pursue careers in computer science,” Zivthan Dubrovsky, Scansorial’s CEO, said in an interview. “If that doesn’t change, our country won’t be able to keep up on the world economic scale.”
In order to start tackling this challenge, Dubrovsky and his team needed to first know who their likely customers would be and what was preventing them from learning these highly coveted skills. Through meetings with kindergarten teachers through college professors, they found that not only do teachers not have the equipment to teach computer science skills, but the subject is dense and intimidating.
Conversely, they noticed that many teachers use iPads in the classroom, and no one had to train them how to use them. Armed with that insight, the team set out to build a device that would make learning to code just as intuitive. Today, Root is a fully functioning robot with an interface is so simple, users don’t even need to be able to read to understand and start using the tool.
Here’s how it works: The robot can drive on flat horizontal surfaces or even vertically on metal-backed whiteboards for easy classroom visibility. Its color sensors allow users to draw on whiteboards, and it’s LED lights and music-enabled capabilities help maximize engagement for younger students, who can also physically control movements by tapping touch surfaces on top of the robot.
On the first proficiency level, children are able to manipulate icons to control the robot’s movements. Without even knowing exactly what they’re doing, children can learn to code for basic tasks like angle sequencing and unit distancing. Once they master this language, they advance to level two, where they learn how to command the robot to do more sophisticated tasks.
“What this is really doing is building up computational literacy so that kids can understand the analytical side of the graphical program they are using,” Dubrovsky said.
“We aren’t saying every child needs to become a computer scientist,” Dubrovsky said. “But we want to give every child the skillset to connect the physical and digital worlds in an easy, concrete way.”
While Root – which is currently available for pre-order through a Kickstarter campaign – can be used by individuals of any age, Dubrovsky finds teaching kids to be the most fulfilling part of his work. Between visiting classrooms and using Root with his children, he has seen the impact his company’s robot can make on a child’s understanding of computer science.
“My daughter and I were having lunch one day, and we were talking about how to make the robot drive in a circle,”
he said. “She was in third grade at the time, and we discussed that, in order to drive straight, the wheels must be turning at the same speed. We had this amazing conversation about if one wheel spun faster than the other, the robot would drive in a circle, and the faster the wheel turned, the smaller the circle would be.”
He continued: “To have a conversation about differential and relative wheel speeds in a robot with a third grader was unbelievable, and to make it better, she was able to write the code herself to make the robot move in real time alongside our conversation.”
While Scansorial would like to implement these coding programs in classrooms across the country, the young company faces some obstacles. Today, only 32 states and the District of Columbia allow computer science courses to count toward high school math and science graduation requirements, and in most cases, schools do not have the budget to pay for this technology.
So, instead of targeting policy makers or entire school systems to try to put robots in classrooms, the Scansorial team is working from the bottom up by identifying teachers who love the product and encouraging them to become ambassadors.
“Teachers are amazing,” Dubrovsky said. “When they find something that works for them, they share with other teachers because, at the end of the day, their main goal is to see kids succeed.”