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Google's Project Bloks tinker toys teach programming to kids

Kids naturally play and learn by using their hands, building stuff and doing things together. One of the benefits of tangible programming is that it makes code physical, so kids can play with it.

There has been a big push in computer science education in the last few years. The UK has made it part of its national curriculum, President Obama has pledged $4 billion toward a national computer science initiative and a slew of toys and games designed to teach kids how to code have come to market. Even Apple got into the spirit with the introduction of Swift Playgrounds, an iPad app that instructs kids on the basics of the company's Swift programming language. Today, Google detailed its own big investment in computer science education. It's called Project Bloks, an open hardware platform that anyone can use to create physical coding experiences for kids.

Project Bloks is made out of three basic components: the "Brain Board," "Base Boards" and "Pucks." The "Brain Board" is, well, the brains of the operation. It houses the main processing unit and is built on top of a Raspberry Pi Zero. It provides power and connectivity to the whole system, and can communicate with any device that has an API through WiFi and Bluetooth. The Base Boards, meanwhile, are modular pieces that can be connected via the Brain Board to create grids or different programming flows. Each Base Board has a capacitive sensor, which it uses to receive instructions from the Pucks.

The Pucks are really the heart and soul of Project Bloks. They're basically code instructions in physical form. Some examples of Pucks include dials, switches, arrows and buttons, which can then be programmed with instructions like "turn on and off" or "go up." They also have no active electronic components and are therefore very inexpensive to make; they can be anything from high-end plastics to a piece of paper with conductive ink. As long as they have some kind of capacitive ID that the system can use to identify them, they can be used as Pucks. Therefore a very basic Project Bloks system will have one Brain Board connected to one or more Base Boards that are outfitted with a Puck each.

Project Bloks is a collaboration between Google's Creative Lab division and Paulo Blikstein, the Director of Transformative Learning Technologies Lab at Stanford University. The idea is based on a concept called tangible programming, a long-held theory that kids naturally play and learn better by using their hands and by playing with each other. That's why making the code be akin to physical blocks is pretty important.

Unfortunately, until now, tangible programming isn't something that's very accessible to most people. Sure, there are companies that have made coding toys for kids, but they're often expensive. What's more, their functionality tends to be limited.

"You really need a lot of expertise," explains Jayme Goldstein, the leader of the project. "You need to know electrical engineering, you need to know hardware engineering. You've got to spend a lot of time developing the infrastructure before you can even get to the educational design." Goldstein says the researchers he's spoken to often spend a couple of years just on the technical back-end. "Next is the money. There's a lot of research and development associated with hardware, along with opportunity costs."

Google worked with IDEO, an international design consultancy, to create a reference design for Project Bloks. Simply called Coding Kit, it has a Brain Board and a bunch of different Base Boards and Pucks that kids can put together to control anything from a tablet to a robot like one from Lego's WeDo. But lest you get excited, the Coding Kit is not for sale. Instead, Google is going to use it for testing with kids and select schools. It'll also be available for public testing at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco.

"We'll be doing an academic paper and a research study to gather data," Goldstein said. "The dataset is going to be made open to everyone." He says that developing out in the open is how Google operates. "This is a field where there is an ecosystem already. We just want to get feedback. This is just the first step."

Introducing Project Bloks

Source: Project Bloks,

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