Kunal Chawla, Megan Chiou, and Alfredo Sandes
Stanford University, Transformative Learning and Technology Laboratory
Brilliant! A great way for anyone to learn how programming works.
Approachable design for an intimidating field.
Takes a concept and makes it accessible with tactile learning. Allows people who think/learn differently to understand programming.
Dr. Wagon is a toy that helps kids learn basic programming. It comprises of a series of programming blocks and a wagon-shaped robot. The programming blocks include basic functions (“turn right”), conditions (“if close to a wall”), and loops (“repeat 10 times”). These blocks can be connected in various ways to control the robot’s behavior. For example, if you connected the blocks, “if close to a wall” + “turn right,” the robot would turn right if it was near an obstacle. Dr. Wagon brings programming from the digital world to the physical world in a fun and accessible way.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
Programming is intimidating. Common programming stereotypes involve sitting at a computer looking at lines of dense symbols and code. This perception discourages people, particularly children, from learning programming. Dr. Wagon dispels these impressions and facilitates a new way to learn programming that is interactive and concrete. Dr. Wagon was designed for children ages 6-12, and is intended to provide children with a fun and more accessible introduction to computer programming.3. The Intent: What point of view did you bring to the project, and were there additional criteria that you added to the brief?
To counter the abstract nature of programming, we wanted to provide an experience that was familiar, physical, and engaging. To achieve this, we followed three primary principles. Parallel form of play: Dr. Wagon is modeled after an existing form of child play, wooden blocks. It thus builds upon a child’s present understanding of the physical world and creates a more seamless transition into to the world of programming. Interaction with environment: Dr. Wagon reinforces tangibility and concreteness through its interaction with a physical environment. Sensors are embedded in the robot, which permit the sense of color and distance in a real environment. This takes programming out of a computer screen and places it in the real world. Low threshold and high ceiling: Children can create very simple programs. Example: “turn 180” – the robot turns 180 degrees. At the same time, children can easily layer on complexity with loops (“repeat”) and conditionals (“if” statements). Example: “if red” + “turn a little” + “repeat forever” - if the robot moves over a patch of red, it will turn in a circle). Thus, when children begin to play with the toy, the immediate success provides an easy entry point to engagement. At the same time, the complexity will sustain their engagement as their learning progresses.4. The Process: Describe the rigor that informed your project. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) What stakeholder interests did you consider? (Audience, business, organization, labor, manufacturing, distribution, etc., as applicable)
Dr. Wagon was conceived and developed in a course at Stanford University called Beyond Bits and Atoms, which focused on developing creative technologies for education. In the initial stages of development, we observed children and their play habits. We spoke with researchers and product developers with expertise in learning technologies and product development. We also conducted a landscape analysis to understand what products currently exist that engage children in programming (ex. Scratch, TERN, etc.). Our analysis and research ultimately led us to commit to our point of view of creating a physical toy with which it was easy to start and sustain engagement. After committing to a point of view, we developed Dr. Wagon over a number of iterations of prototyping, testing, and troubleshooting. We encountered a number of challenges along the way – overcoming significant voltage drops down the program stack, creating ways to mitigate user error, finding materials that were light and durable, overcoming compatibility issues with existing open source software. Thus, we went through several cycles for aspect of the toy: material (cardboard, Masonite, plywood of different widths), electrical contacts (conductive fabric, metal sheeting, copper tape), stretchability (accordion, telescopic nesting), communication protocols, and more.5. The Value: How does your project earn its keep in the world? What is its value? What is its impact? (Social, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, environmental, cultural, gladdening, etc.)
Programming is an integral part of 21st century education. According to Code.org, a computer science education initiative, computer programming jobs are growing at two times the national average, yet 9 out of 10 schools in America don’t offer programming classes. Dr. Wagon engages children in programming outside of a traditional classroom and at an early age. It was designed to be familiar, accessible, and easy to use, and through these considerations, Dr. Wagon provides is a new introductory entry point into the world of programming and aims to inspire a new generation of creators.6. Did the context of your project change throughout its development? If so, how did your understanding of the project change?
Our project fits the DIY spirit of making and sharing in two ways: Product development: The project was conceived, developed, and completed by members of our team. All materials (plywood, sensors, magnets) can easily be found in hardware and hobbyist shops. In addition, we used open source technologies (Arduinos), and we also developed our own software solutions (such as the compiler which processes the instructions in the blocks into the actions performed by the robot). Finally, the product was also made so it could be easily disassembled (sliding lids and removable backs) to encourage exploration, reuse, and further development. Topic: The spirit of the project is to teach programming, which is DIY in its very nature. Programming empowers people to create, hack, and build, and we see Dr. Wagon as the first step in their DIY-journey.