When you think about the word literacy, the first thought that pops into your mind is probably not coding literacy. From a very young age, we are taught to read and write, much of which is translated into a form of self-expression over time. However, even in our highly tech-saturated era, where two-year olds handle tablets and phones better than their grandparents, coding is not perceived as a platform for creative self-expression. Professor Marina Bers of Tufts University’s DevTech Research Group is spearheading a movement to redefine the paradigm of coding and push for the democratization of it in schools across the US, along with classrooms in 60 other countries around the world.
Professor Marina Bers
Originally with a background in journalism, Professor Bers is extremely familiar with the importance of self-expression; an early motivation in developing her technology was ensuring that “children have early access to new ways of thinking, and new ways of expression.” Her entire research is guided under this philosophy of increasing accessibility to coding during the critical stages of cognitive development during ages 3-8 before stereotypes of who can access computer science develop. This would lead to more children from a variety of backgrounds being able to develop coding literacy and thus, along with the other forms of literacy, will start to have a civic voice by providing another platform for students to communicate their ideas about the world.
As such, the primary technologies developed by her team, ScratchJr and KIBO Robot, catered to how children learn best—by touching, grasping, and puzzling objects together, rather than the text-based programming languages that are more commonly associated with coding. In the free ScratchJr app, for example, students can playfully drag around colorful icons and run simple algorithms on their tablets or computers. For KIBO Robots, students assemble a small two wheeled robot with different sound, light, and distance sensors to make it move around as they wish, as well as customizing the decorations of the robot to their artistic taste. They program the robot with wooden blocks, no need of screens. Along with the fun hardware and software interfaces developed for ScratchJr and KIBO Robot, her team has developed a free learning curriculum called Coding as Another Language inspired by her book Coding as a Playground to guide the teachers around the world in implementing her technology under appropriate pedagogical targets.
Students with their assembled KIBO robot
Throughout her twenty years at Tufts, Professor Bers’ work has come to full fruition. KIBO robotics began as a research grant by the National Science Foundation to develop 60 3D KIBO robots aimed to be implemented in a few classrooms. Due to the popularity of the project, she began to pursue a greater goal of widely distributing her technology through commercialization. She built a start up in her basement that has now grown to a size of a small company that develops and implements the KIBO robots in over 60 countries around the world.
In addition, to making sure every child in the world is able to access coding, the ScratchJr app can be freely downloaded. Now, Professor Bers is supported by a three-year, four-million dollar grant by the US Dept of Education, to conduct a controlled randomized study with ScratchJr in hundreds of classrooms in preschools and elementary schools across US states. In the long term, she hopes that students not only learn how to code and develop problem solving skills but that coding also becomes another facet for students to communicate, collaborate, and creatively express their ideas to the world.
Students using the ScratchJr app