Learning coding skills is not just about being able to program a computer, the researchers say, it is about acquiring a skillset useful for solving all sorts of real life problems, expanding kids’ literacy and ways of thinking.
In their position paper, the Google researchers acknowledge that a number of block-based coding tutorial aids have already been developed and commercialized, but their goal is to come up with a more versatile and open hardware platform. Tangible reconfigurable blocks that researchers, developers and designers will be able to use to build fully interoperable physical coding experiences (that is, coding through the playful assembly of kid-friendly hardware blocks).
This approach leverages kids’ natural inclination to play and learn by using their hands, making code physical in order to help them acquire computational thinking skills. This tangible programming interface is somewhat a hardware emulation of Google’s Blockly on-screen block programming.
Project Bloks is a research collaboration between Google, Paulo Blikstein (Stanford University) and design firm IDEO. The collaborators have already built some a working prototype, consisting of three core components: the “Brain Board”, “Base Boards” and “Pucks”, that once connected together, create a set of instructions.
Built on a Raspberry Pi Zero, the Brain Board is the processing unit of the system, it provides the other boards with power and contains an API to receive and send data to the Base Boards. It is the unit that will ultimately compile and sends the code to any device with a WiFi or Bluetooth connectivity.
Each Base Board is fitted with a haptic motor and LEDs that can be used to give end-users real time feedback (this could be green when a code is valid, or red when there is a compile error or a bug). The Base Boards can also trigger audio feedback from the Brain Board’s built-in speaker. While the Base Boards can be connected in different orientations to create different programming flows, they take their instructions from the Pucks, inexpensive, customisable physical instructions that seat on top of them.
The Pucks are swappable, they share their instructions “written” as patterns of conductive ink, whose orientation and direction can be sensed by the Base Board’s capacitive sensor. These cheap physical instructions could be made of paper or cardboard or take the shape of many different interactive forms, they help bring the infinite flexibility of software programming commands to tangible programming experiences, write the researchers in their blog.
Together with IDEO, the Google Creative Lab has designed a coding kit for kids to learn basic concepts of programming (putting code bricks together to create a set of instructions).
The researchers are now looking for participants (educators, developers, parents and researchers) from around the world to remotely take part in their research studies.
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