I'm jealous of high school computer science students these days. I had to tap out my GOTO 10 commands on a crappy CRT monitor; they get a cheap, rugged robot to play with. The Finch, as it's called, costs just $99, so every student in a classroom can have their own. And its design was rigorously based on educational research that uncovered the five key attributes to making the perfect educational toy.
"If students have an emotional connection to the robot because of looks, they're more motivated."
Cost was the first of the five; the second, says chief roboticist Tom Lauwers, was that it had to have "rich interactivity" built in. No clunky command lines here: the Finch has onboard sensors that can accept motion, sounds and light as inputs as well as outputs, plus a webcam and the ability to tap into RSS feeds from the web. "20 years ago, you would write a program and it'd spit out text on the screen or ask you a text question," Lauwers tells Co.Design. "Today, students are used to video game consoles and smart phones with sensors and touchscreens. Even their laptops aren't just for inputting text: they have microphones and video cameras. The Finch is one way to expose introductory students to these capabilities, by having them write programs that can output in an interesting way that affects the physical world."
Another biggie on the design checklist: aesthetic appeal. "I didn't really know how important the aesthetics would be when we started," Lauwers says. "Originally I just wanted it to look OK, not a circuit board on wheels. But I've learned that if the students have an emotional connection to the robot because of how it looks, that motivates them more." Lauwers also wanted the device to appeal to both men and women equally. "Computer science at the college level is about 20% female," he explains. "The threat of a new robot is that it may exacerbate that problem, so the Finch is designed to be gender neutral."
An elementary school version will have point-and-click programming.
The last two design principles: that the Finch be rugged (it needs not to break if an errant command sends it skittering off a tabletop) and that it could "snap on" to any CS curriculum without requiring extra training or chucking the standard lesson plans. "Students can get up and running with it in 30 minutes," says Lauwers, and the Finch's website is chock-full of activities and assignments that any CS instructor can grok.
But just because the Finch is pretty darn great as-is doesn't mean Lauwers isn't designing ways to make it even better. Forthcoming versions will include wireless transmitters (the current Finch must be plugged in with a hard line), and he's also developing a Finch for elementary school students that can be "visually programmed" with a simple point-and-click interface. Who knows, it could even appeal to an old-timer like me.