Bots for Tots

A high-tech toy brings coding to the kindergarten set


As a professor in Tufts’ Eliot Pearson Department of Child Development, Marina Umaschi Bers is accustomed to presenting research to fellow academics. But when she started sharing her work on KIBO—a programmable robot designed to be developmentally appropriate for kids ages 4 to 7—her colleagues’ reactions weren’t quite what she expected. “I’m presenting my slides, and people would raise their hands, and I was waiting for the questions on the statistics and significant results,” she recalls. “But always the first question is ‘How can I get one?’”

Until recently, they couldn’t. KIBO started out as a hand-built prototype, reflecting years of work by Bers and her students at Tufts’ DevTech research group. They went through three generations of development, drawing on feedback from more than 400 kids and 50 teachers at local schools. The result: a robot kids can assemble, decorate and command, using a programming language built on wooden blocks, each representing a different action. “There’s no computer, no keyboard, no screens of any kind,” Bers explains. Instead, kids snap the blocks into a sequence and scan the bar code on each using the “mouth” of the KIBO, which also comes with sensors shaped like an ear (for sound), an eye (for light) and a telescope (for gauging distance). Press a button and presto: The robot can wheel around, beep, sing, shake, spin and flash colored lights, mimicking a ballerina, a helicopter, a dogsled or whatever else its pint-sized programmer imagines.

The team developed complementary curricula, and the response convinced Bers to take KIBO out of the lab. So she teamed up with her friend Mitch Rosenberg—a veteran of Automatix Inc., Kiva Systems and Rethink Robotics—to found KinderLab Robotics. With help from a Small Business Innovation Research grant and this summer’s successful Kickstarter campaign, which raised nearly $30K more than its $50,000 goal, the Arlington-based startup has begun commercial production of KIBO kits ($229-$399). “There are wonderful things for older children,” Bers says, “but there was nothing like this for this age range.” She hopes KIBO is just the beginning. “We need more of these technologies for young children. Research shows that by fourth grade, stereotypes about who’s going to be good at math, science and engineering are already formed.” The first shipments began this month, so some future STEM whizzes may soon find a new friend under the tree.

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