How can we teach human values through computer programming? Can coding support character development? How does a robotics-based program not only promote the acquisition of technological skills but also help children become better citizens and human beings? Can coding serve as a bridge to get to know others who are different from us?
These questions are explored in Marina Bers’ Beyond Coding: How Children Learn Human Values through Programming book published in 2022 by The MIT Press. This book shares many stories of children, families and teachers from different cultures, countries and religions, who speak different languages, come together to create expressive interactive projects by learning a new shared language: computer programming.
For example, the Beyond STEM: The Development of Virtues in Early Childhood Education Through Robotics project — funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation — explores these questions by working with faith-based and secular kindergarten classrooms in Boston, United States and Buenos Aires, Argentina.The program utilizes the KIBO robotics kit designed for young children aged 4-7 years old by the DevTech Research Group and commercialized by KinderLab Robotics.
Here is a video that tells the story of the project and shows both teacher’s and children’s resulting robotics projects. Here is a website displaying the final robotic projects created by the different kindergarten classrooms.
Here is a blog written by teachers in one of the participating schools.
Our goal is to explore how can technology-rich interventions can not only educate children to fulfill the increasingly technically-sophisticated workforce’s demands, but also to become better citizens and human beings. The new generations will engineer smart objects, design smart cities and make bioengineering devices. At the same time, these new generations will need to address the complex ethical questions regarding how those technologies will be used towards a greater good in our complex, pluralistic societies.
Currently, the growing push for STEM education highlights the need of increasing technical knowledge and skills, but it usually ignores the crucial need to cultivate character virtues alongside the technical aspects. Outcomes from this research show a possible path for integrating technical and moral or character education, in different settings, while supporting people to build bridges. That is, to get to know each other by sharing a new practice: coding and making.
This project utilizes the curriculum “Our Treasure: A KIBO Coding Curriculum for Emergent Readers”, one of the many curriculum units developed by the DevTech Research Group to teach robotics, coding and computational children to young children. For the final robotic project children create the treasures representing different aspects of their school and set out in a KIBO treasure hunt to collect them and showcase what is special and unique about their school to others.
The curriculum also integrates the use of storytelling. Two different versions were used. In Buenos Aires, the curriculum was centered on the song Hay Un Balde En El Fondo De La Mar (Spanish Version, English Version). In Boston, around the children’s book, There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly by Simms Taback (English Version).
Both of these curricular units focus on sequencing and engage children in recreating the popular book and song by programming KIBO robotics, as way to introduce computational thinking skills and coding concepts. The Coding as Another Language, curriculum, was developed based on lessons learned during the experiences of piloting these units .
The project is lead by the Principal Investigator, Prof. Marina Umaschi Bers, professor at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development and the Computer Science Department at Tufts University, and head of the DevTech Research Group.
Since the project involves working with interfaith groups, an advisory board composed of experts in the field of education with a strong grounding on their own respective faiths provides invaluable guidance both designing the intervention and analyzing data.
The advisory board is formed by:
Dr. Ziva Hassenfeld, an Assistant Professor of Jewish education at Brandeis University. She earned her doctorate from the Stanford University Graduate School of Education in Curriculum and Teacher Education and did a postdoc at the DevTech Research Group at Tufts University. Besides literacy research she has extensive background in studying, teaching, and researching the learning of Jewish sacred texts.
Dr. Mona Abo Zena, is an Assistant Professor in Early Childhood Education and Care, College of Education and Human Development at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Her research focuses on the role of religion and spiritual development (broadly defined) as a way of knowing and being and as a particular cultural fund of knowledge that affects learning and development. Her work is informed by over 20 years of teaching, administrative, and board experiences in P-16 educational contexts.
Dr. Frank DeVito, the Education Director and Co-Founder of Equity Lab Charter School. Equity Lab is a project-based learning school where students use an equity-centered design process to problem-solve challenges in their communities. He was also a candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood and studied at the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome, Italy.
In Argentina, the program coordinator is Valeria Larrart. Valeria is an elementary school educator who specializes in new learning technologies, STEAM and making activities. She holds a license in educational technologies and is co-founder of iLAB and Edumakers.