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Harvard’s new robot teaches kids to code

Not every robot that comes out of Boston is the stuff of childhood nightmares. In fact, kids can have a lot of fun with Harvard’s latest creation… and learn to code at the same time!

These youngsters are experimenting with Root, the hexagonal Roomba-looking thing parked in front of their grown-up facilitator. Root is sort of like a Turtle robot, but it’s been updated for the 21st century.

Root is equipped with an array of sensors, a bump guard very much like the one on a robotic vacuum, and a touch-sensitive surface that lets it “respond to the physical world.” It’s designed to run around a magnetic whiteboard (one that’s been laid on the floor works nicely, but Root will happily drive up walls, too), and kids can program routines for it just by drawing steps out with dry erase markers.

There’s a companion mobile app that allows for more complex coding using a system that’s very similar to MIT’s web-based Scratch editor. They can even flip over to a source view once they’ve mastered drag-and-drop programming.

The Wyss Institute team behind Root has a lofty goal: to put a robot in every classroom. They think that’s a very achievable goal, because the infrastructure it requires is already in place in many schools. Whiteboards are already on the walls, and tablets — if not in the individual classrooms themselves — are available as a shared resource.

In the end, they say, the cost of putting Root in a classroom is no more than the average textbook… though it might be more fitting to note that a single textbook still costs as much as (or more than) a sophisticated robot in 2016.

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