Every week there seems to be a new robot that introduces kids to coding concepts. But the new Arduino-based Plobot, which is on Kickstarter with a starting price point of $79, might have the simplest, least intimidating approach yet.
Designed for kids 4-8 years old, kids simply tap command cards against Plobot’s head to automatically create a program the robot follows. A green “play” card acts as the execute function to perform what was coded.
Each command card represents a block of code. Except the kids don’t need to understand the complexities of writing that code. It’s a nice, non-threatening introduction to coding. The command cards trigger Plobot through its built-in RFID scanner, making Plobot navigate a maze of obstacles, play music, light up with different colors, sense nearby objects, and much more.
Plobot comes standard with two types of cards: function cards and motion cards. Plobot offers expansion packs to challenge kids as they go. For example, color cards can be combined to make Plobot glow different colors, and Modifier cards change the effects of other Function Cards.
Watch the video below in which NYU Shanghai professor and Plobot creator Rodolfo Cossovich demonstrates how simple it is to “code” Plobot. Here’s the sequence of motion cards he uses to tell Plobot what to do: forward, forward, turn right, turn right, turn right, forward, forward.
Cossovich says there are up to 50 possible steps in one sequence, dozens of cards and more expansions on the way.
“Computational thinking is becoming a core literacy for the next generation. Plobot gives kids a headstart without the negative effects of screens,” says Cossovich. “Many parents have described Plobot as a physical version of Scratch, and we mix this approach with play to help kids become logical thinkers.”
By breaking down each task into a sequence of steps, kids exercise problem solving and creative thinking abilities, while picking up core coding concepts such as variables, conditionals, and loops.
“Being able to decompose a problem into sub-problems, recognize patterns, extract abstraction, and formulate algorithms are critical skills that are needed in everday life,” says Tekin Mericli, a senior robotics engineer at Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC). “Plobot offers a very valuable medium to prepare our next generations to become not only computational thinkers, but also robot-literate individuals.”
The startup has developed a custom curriculum around Plobot that is has pilot-tested with hundreds of kids in international schools around the world, including schools in Shanghai, Taipei, Buenos Aires and Washington, DC. Backers will have access to an online teaching guide with curriculum centered around Plobot’s abilities.
The first units of Plobot will ship to early birds in January 2017, the company says, with other backers receiving Plobot in March 2017. Plobot’s exterior is made of plastic, and kids can customize Plobot using stickers, clay, and or attaching Duplo blocks on its back.
“As a teacher, I feel we are just not equipped properly for the speed of change that this digital era brought to us. We have iPads at school, smart screens but not so much changed in class management,” says Cossovich. “I still have to show them and ask them not to touch so many things when I teach science at primary schools. And I feel sorry for that. We should be able to ask them to experiment non-stop.”
Evolution of Plobot.