Computer coding for kids: This week from New York NOW

Oct 6, 2014

Story begins at 19:25

STEM education is becoming an increasingly important part of children’s lives. In some countries concepts like programming and coding are being taught alongside traditional subjects like reading, writing and mathematics. Here in America, a startup company called Wonder Workshop is hoping to jump start American children’s interest in the complex concept of coding, with their toy robots, DOT and DASH.

Vikas Gupta is co-creator of this teaching toy and CEO of Wonder Workshop, the company that produces it. DASH and its smaller side kick DOT are programmable robots that kids can command through a touch screen app.

“You can draw a path on the screen, and the robot responds as you can see its lighting up, its eager to now go on a journey with you, and I can actually put it down and just now press the robot’s button and it’s following a path that I programmed this robot to do.”

Gupta says they have found research that shows kids engage with and learn from toys better than just a screen. The goal of Wonder Workshop, he says is to take coding and make it come to life with the help of a robot.

Their teaching toys, DASH and DOT are making their unofficial debut at Pepcom, the tech savvy conference held annually in New York City.

Users can control DASH or DOT through one of two programs. The first, an app designed by Wonder Workshop that Gupta says children in preschool can master. After drawing a path on the screen for the robot to follow, kids can then add in commands like ‘beep,’ ‘pause’ or ‘turn around’ which is the basic concept of sequencing; planning out what you want the robot to do first and then programming it to follow through.

The next step is programming the robots with ‘Blockly’ a visual programming app.

“So here what you see is a visual drag and drop. Now, you get different commands the robot can move around, you can move its head here, lights, sounds. Now I can program the robot to, for example is hey, keep moving until I tell you to stop and then whenever you see an object in front of you, then I want you to for example let’s say, turn around and I can actually drag an object which will turn it around and it says turn right. And now… that becomes the program the robot can do.”

So why the emphasis on making coding fun and interesting for young children?

According to a CNN study, US students lag behind other countries in the rapidly expanding fields of science, technology, engineering and math also known as STEM.

When compared to the top 65 industrial countries, America ranks 23rd in math and 31st in science behind countries like Slovakia and Estonia.

But there are numerous tech companies hoping to help change that trend.

Upstate in Troy, Tobi Saulnier, founder and CEO of 1st Playable, a company that develops  entertainment and educational video games for kids says understanding technology is no longer a luxury but a necessity.

“The children today are going into a future where the workforce is going to be all technology.”

She describes the generation currently in grade school as ‘digital natives’ whose experiences to explore, take risks, make mistakes and learn from them are often experienced in the digital world. So it would make sense for them to develop an understanding of how they can form and mold that world themselves.

“Even a young child working with a game will automatically go about trying to figure out what it does, and they just have an openness to figuring out the system, how does it work and just build those same problem solving skills they’re gonna have to have in the future.”

Saulnier cites popular video game Minecraft as another entry point for kids to learn the basics of coding and sequencing. She says 1st Playable often holds workshops to use the game to teach coding and jokes that if enough kids master programming, it could put her out of business one day.

“It’s becoming easier and easier for young kids to make their own games. So in a few years maybe there won’t need to be game developers because kids will be able to make their own games.”

Back in New York City, Vikas Gupta there’s a hunger in the market for more toys like his. DASH and DOT retail for $199 and $69 dollars respectively, and they’ve already done more than 2-million in preorders.

“Being able to learn to code is an essential skill for anyone growing up today.”

Unfortunately, DASH and DOT are in such high demand, they won’t be available until early next year. However, the technology market quickly expands and more toys like these may be the next hot item on toy store shelves.