With an increasingly digital future ahead of us, kids are being taught programming skills at younger and younger ages. Play is often the best way to start learning, and we've seen toys like the Code-a-Pillar and Photon robot developed to fill that role. Now, Google Research is aiming to accelerate the expansion of the field with Project Bloks, an open-source hardware platform for developers to create "tangible programming" tools for kids.
The system works a little like Lego, with modular blocks clipping together to make different shapes. Each block can be assigned an attribute or function, and developers and kids can use these to create simple sets of instructions for robots, toys and other devices to follow. Google likens the project to a physical version of its simple on-screen programming language, Blockly.
Learning programming using on-screen tools can be tough, require advanced language skills and involve abstract thought processes. Through the use of physical toys, the researchers aim to tap into the natural, childlike urge to get hands-on and build things, and use that to teach critical computational thinking. The method also opens up coding education to kids who haven't yet learned to read and write, or those with learning disabilities.
The Project Bloks system is made up of three main components: pucks, base boards and brain boards. Pucks are for individual functions, like on/off switches, sensors, dials for adjusting amounts, and arrows indicating direction. Pucks are designed to be easy and cheap to make, allowing developers the flexibility to create whatever it is their system requires.
The base boards hold the pucks, and through a capacitive sensor, read the instructions and values on them and act as a conduit to pass that information along. Each one contains a haptic motor and LEDs and can trigger audio cues in the brain board, which can all provide feedback to the user. The order and orientation of connected base boards can be changed to chain commands in different sequences.
Built on a Raspberry Pi Zero, the brain board is the core of the system, providing power to the base boards and processing the instructions as a whole. It then transmits the complete code via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to any external device with an API.
Using a prototype of the system called the Coding Kit, the researchers demonstrated the concept by having kids instruct a Wi-Fi-connected robot to draw a square, rotate 60 degrees, and then repeat that sequence six times.
Google Research is putting the call out for developers, educators, parents and researchers to help develop Project Bloks further. The researchers explain and demonstrate the system in the two videos below.