Friday, August 25, 2006

"Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas"

My last post about the PICO Cricket kit and the LEGO Mindstorms brought to the fore thoughts on kids and programming that I have dwelt on ever so often...and the book that started it all (and purportedly inspired many of the early adopters of computers in classrooms as well as legions at the Media Lab in the Lifelong Kindergarten group whose research gave birth to the LEGO Mindstorms and now the PICO Cricket).

It's been over a quarter of a century since 'Mindstorms' (Seymour Papert's seminal book on kids and computers) took the education world by storm. The book was less about teaching with/about/from computers (the topical tensions of technology integration in schools) as it was about allowing kids to be creative through computers. 26 years on, and we rarely see kids in schools using computers in the way Papert envisioned - children programming computers and acquiring "a sense of mastery over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology" and through this endeavor establishing "intimate contact with some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and from the art of intellectual model building." Is it because Papert's argument was not compelling enough or is the jury still out on the educational benefits of such an endeavor? Or is it because teachers (the vast majority of them anyway), dare not stray into the realm of "geeks" (the popular (mis)perception of people who can program) - in the belief that such activity is way too "hi-tech" for them. I tend to think that it is the latter.

Fortunately for us all, there are some who have not given up on this powerful idea. The simple easy-to-use LOGO programming environment (that Papert and his colleagues created at the MIT Media Lab) is still alive and kicking, and available through various sources. Microsoft's Kids Programming Language (KPL), while not as easy as LOGO, seems promising. Squeak based on Smalltalk has been around for a while, and Scratch, slated to be Media Lab's latest gift to kids and educators (who care to share Papert's view) is a WYSIWYG, iconic LOGO-like programming environment.

With no apparent dearth of kids programming environments and certainly no shortage of computers (what with the $100 laptop soon to become a reality in the developing world), the need of the hour is to get teachers to start playing around in these easy-to-use, fun programming environments, so that they can get over their irrational fear of communicating with computers, and start seeing the thrilling possibilities of these powerful learning tools in their classrooms.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Chirp, Chirp! Here come the crickets...

The latest offering to emerge from research at the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT Media Lab, has once again got proponents of “hands-on”, creative learning excited in eager anticipation. The PICO Cricket kit, due to be released in the coming weeks presents some thrilling possibilities for informal learning spaces. As someone who volunteered for the workshops at MIT Museum in 2003 during the ‘Playful Invention & Exploration’ (PIE) research project, I have a personal connection as well with this product.

Sidhanth at a PIE Workshop
PIE Workshops at the MIT Museum - Pictures of my (then) 6-year old son at the 'e-Insect Invasion' workshop in April 2003

Simply put, PicoCricket is “a LEGO Mindstorms Robotics Kit meets a Klutz Craft Kit” i.e. LEGO pieces + ‘Electronic Thingees’ + Craft materials, where ‘Electronic Thingees’ = a microcomputer (the legendary MIT Media Lab “cricket” encased in a plastic body, much like the LEGO RCX brick), LEDs, sensors & motors. The colorful craft materials range from foam balls to pipe cleaners to straws, beads and buttons. [In the hands of a resourceful, creative individual, the kit could be “enhanced” by any number of “craft materials” from all around us - there is no dearth of plastic and metal knick-knacks that could be recycled to find a new home - and use.]

What differentiates this product from the Mindstorms, is, of course, the emphasis on creativity and craft, which as I see, will serve to bridge the technology gender divide (I speak from first-hand experience – boys have outnumbered girls by far in the after-school Robotics Club I have run for high-schoolers for the past 3 years). It is not only the inclusion of craft materials that sets this apart from the Mindstorms, but also the exclusion of the vast numbers of wheels, axles, tires, treads and hubs, that account for a large percentage of the Mindstorms kit. Kids take one look at the Mindstorms kit and “roving bots on wheels” is probably the first "robot" idea that strikes them. One look at the Crickets kit and kids could think of a zillion different exciting, colorful artifacts. "Arts & Crafts for the Digital Age", is how NYT has described it.

At $250, this kit seems quite pricey (more so for the Indian market), especially given that the LEGO Mindstorms NXT seems to have a lot more (in terms of sheer size of the kit) for the same price; but that has not deterred critics from giving this product a thumbs-up. (I queried Mitch Resnick at the Media Lab about this when he showed me the Cricket kit this past spring; he thinks that bulk production - driven by demand, will hopefully bring down the price some time in the future).

I, for one, cannot wait to get my hands on one of these ...