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MIT Technology Review

A robot to teach coding—and build character

Marina Umaschi Bers, SM ’97, PhD ’01

Marina Umaschi Bers, SM ’97, PhD ’01, was working as a journalist in her native Argentina in 1992 when an assignment put her in touch with MIT mathematician and computer scientist Seymour Papert—the co-creator of Logo, a programming language for kids that was the basis of a camp she’d attended at age 10. During that conversation, she says, she found her calling: “I don’t want to write about this. I want to do this.” Shortly afterward, she enrolled at MIT as a graduate student to work with Papert.

Marina Umaschi Bers, SM'97, PhD '01
JONATHAN WILLIAMS

Now at Tufts University, Bers leads the DevTech Research Group, examining the role new technologies can play in children’s development and learning. She also chairs the Department of Child Study and Human Development and directs the graduate certificate program in early childhood technology. Her work aims to help young children build STEM and arts skills, while developing values that can help people live together in a multicultural, diverse society.

“Technology may change the way we address some of those issues,” she says, “because it involves problem-solving, an open mind, trial and error.”

Her Tufts research group has co-developed a programming language called ScratchJr in partnership with teams led by former students of Papert: the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group, directed by LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research Mitchel Resnick, SM ’88, PhD ’92, and the Playful Invention Company, cofounded by Brian Silverman ’78. Based on the coding language Scratch, ScratchJr is designed to encourage kids ages five through seven to program interactive stories and games. Some 13 million people worldwide have used the free ScratchJr app since it launched in 2014.

Through her startup KinderLab Robotics, Bers is commercializing another of her inventions: Kibo, a robot already in use by schools in 60 countries. Children cue up a set of actions for Kibo by scanning bar codes on wooden blocks. When they press a button, the robot enacts their program, performing a dance or telling a story. Kibo, which emphasizes concepts such as sequencing that are relevant to coding, also supports learning in math, reading, and writing. Through Kibo’s open-ended activities, says Bers, students learn not only how to engage with the technology but how they can use it to interact positively with other people. “I’m not focused on developing the next generation of programmers,” she explains. “I just want to impact the next generation of citizens—and they need to learn new skills and think in new ways.”