A robot teaching children how to code


In the past, when a car broke down, one of your parents probably knew how to fix it. They went to the garage and started tinkering. When the light went off, they knew how to bring it back before you managed to find a candle to light. In the future, once your autonomous Tesla breaks down, or your smart toaster gets crazy, or any of your smart home apps stops working – who would fix that? Would it be you? Or maybe your children? If this is what you are counting on, you’d better teach them how to code. Now.

How can you do that? In Poland, a pioneering pilot program was launched last year to make it possible for kids to attend programming classes. And the chances are coding may one day be introduced to the curriculum in primary schools. You probably remember how IT classes used to looked like in your time - learning how to type in Microsoft Word for a year round in primary school, then again in secondary school, and then again in high school. Sounds familiar

So what else can you do then? Buy your kid a robot.

Meet Photon

Photon is a small educational robot which can be used by kids as young as 3 years old. Kids can play with it through an app on a smartphone or a tablet. Those apps vary depending on the user’s age and skills. Younger kids learn coding with drawings, symbols or blocks. The language based on blocks was inspired by Scratch – the programming language created by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with kids in mind. More advanced version for 10 to 12 year olds uses a method resembling actual programming languages.

No, your kid won’t add new skills for your Alexa using APIs. But the kid can program the robot to move, to change its color when touched or to make a sound.

As of now, Photon doesn’t really teach them how to use neither SQL, Java nor C#. That’s not the point. Instead, it gives children a chance to grasp some of the general rules of programming. While playing with Photon kids learn logical thinking, problem solving, and develop creativity.

Taking over the market

Photon is the brainchild of a team from Białystok University of Technology: Marcin Joka, Krzysztof Dziemańczuk, Michał Grześ, Michal Bogucki, and Maciej Kopczyński. What started as a student’s project is now quite a renowned company. The robot, sold under the brand Photon Entertainment, entered the market just last year and is already available in the biggest retail stores in Poland. Photon with an app dedicated for educational institutions is used in 450 kindergartens and primary schools around the country.

Photon is also internationally acclaimed. It has international resellers in countries like Singapore and Australia. They are planning to sell their robot in the Scandinavian, German- and French- speaking countries as well.  

This small educational robot seems to have no competition on the market. According to the team, there is only one American company which offers a similar product. The competitors are too complicated or too expensive. Or both. Photon in turn costs PLN 800 (USD 230).

The robot even won in an international CEE-Released Programme organized by European Business Angels Network (EBAN) and was awarded with a title of the best startup in CEE (Central and Eastern Europe). What is more, the robot took Photon Entertainment into a partnership with Apple. Both companies joined forces to work on an educational platform. Besides, Photon now enjoys the status of official partner of Microsoft and in 2015 it won national finals of one of the biggest technology championships - Microsoft Imagine Cup 2015 in the World Citizenship category.

The competition itself was in fact a trigger which led the team to develop Photon in the first place. “We were looking for an idea, an inspiration, something which would surprise both jury and the world,” says Photon Entertainment’s CEO Marcin Joka. And then it became clear: “Robots! There haven’t been any robots on Imagine Cup. Let’s do something with robots!” During a brainstorming session, one of the team members came across some statistics on the kids’ problems with logical thinking. And this is how they hit upon the idea to create a robot which would teach children how to think logically through play and some coding.

“The first prototype of Photon was ready after three hours spent in my garage. With Krzysiek, we assembled the robot using some spare parts which lied in our home magazines. We connected it to the cell phone and started testing it to see what we can and can’t do,” says Joka.

Product development

But the success didn’t come easy.  It’s not that they weren’t good at making robots. Just the opposite.

As students they were already making mobile apps and dabbled in robotics. They created a space exploration vehicle - Hyperion, a Mars rover, which won international University Rover Challenge in 2013 and then again in 2014. The team also developed self-parking cars and SUMO robots. But starting a business was a whole different story.

The thing is, the robot had to become a product. A product which would sell. And if you want to do just that you need to take into consideration the needs of the final users. And that was the team’s weakness. The first prototypes of the robot were far from perfect. They just didn’t work with any psychologists, let alone with kids or parents. But they made up for it quickly. One of the major steps was carrying out a fieldwork during which Photon was tested by 3 000 kids.

The feedback received from kids made them entirely change Photon’s design. Three times over. They had to change a lot of features. “As adult programmers and constructors we didn’t realize the obvious differences between us and kids (such as the size of hands, perception, or the fact that kids have no developed habits of using mobile devices)”, explains Joka.  

Now that the robot is ready, they are still thinking about upgrades. They work on an app which would read the tasks to the kids who can’t quite read yet and a platform with Apple to teach kids the real language of programming – Swift. So just wait till your kid starts tinkering with your iPhone.

Digital literacy

The team is quite sure that computer programming is becoming equally important as writing and reading. And the world is waking up to this fact.

Digital literacy has become a buzz phrase recently. In a world of ubiquitous connectivity it is relatively easy to use technology. We seem to instinctively know how to do that. But it is not entirely a good thing. The fact that we use our instinct suggests we all too often lack basic skills. The fact that we think we know how to use something doesn’t necessarily mean we understand it. We can communicate with machines as long as nothing breaks down and nothing needs fixing. We just use those devices in a way they were designed to be used.

And of course, designers care about us. They go to great lengths to make user experience a seamless one. But that doesn’t make the problem any better. The code is still hidden from us. It’s black magic.

The amount of devices and sensors all around us is growing and we would better be ready to cope with that. And that may turn out to be impossible without some IT skills.

“The development of new technologies won’t stop. That is why, we should prepare our children for their adult lives. Give them as many opportunities as possible,“ says Joka.

It doesn’t mean that everyone has to be a coder. Some basic coding skills could simply make kids more self-sufficient as they would carry on their lives in a reality permeated by technology. Once they comprehend the inner workings of devices that will surely surround them, they will be more prepared for the future to come. The future in which human-to-machine communication is as important as anything.

Otherwise, they could end up being at risk of digital exclusion.

Because coding isn’t just about computers and designing websites. That is no longer the case. “Today we program cars, fridges, football pitches and robots,“ adds Joka.

So brace yourself. Code or be coded.

All work and no play

There is yet another strong incentive behind teaching your kid how to code. The labor market. Nowadays, forward-thinking parents read books to their kids before they are even born to familiarize them with the sound of the language and hence to make the unborns more likely to learn it.

In this fierce rivalry coding becomes yet another battleground. And this is a trend Photon writes itself in, whether its creators like it or not. And as of today, the labor market is still hungry for computer programmers. So teaching the kid to code early on might give them a head start to a lucrative job.

Written by Dare Magazine

CodingNestor Kaszycki