To address that concern, there are iPad apps, free Kahn Academy courses, summer camps, and countless robotic toys that can be controlled by software that their owners write.
In that last category, one of the best products I’ve tested comes from a Cambridge startup called Root Robotics, and it just started shipping in September. It sells for $199, and a few things make it special.
Root looks a bit like a Lilliputian, six-sided cousin of the Roomba vacuum cleaner. But it can do a lot more than just suck up dust. When you stick a whiteboard marker into a hole in the center of Root, it can draw lines. (It comes with a whiteboard surface you can put on a table, but thanks to a set of internal magnets it can also work on vertical whiteboards that have metal backs.) It can light up, play music, sense when you touch its surface, when it hits a barrier, when the environment is light or dark, when it hears a noise, or even when it rolls over a particular color.
All those features enable Root to make not just drawings — one of our first projects was a snowman, with a few notes from the “Frozen” song about snowman-building played at the end — but also to respond to things happening around it, and to play games.
To help kids progress from one level to the next, the company offers a set of lessons called Root Academy for $5 per month, but it’s not essential to getting a lot out of the bot. Trial and error is a big part of learning how to code, and it’s fun to debug things when Root takes a wrong turn or draws something you didn’t intend.
Root has its, um, roots at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, where cofounder Radhika Nagpal runs a lab that researches artificial intelligence and robotics.
Zivthan Dubrovsky, a former iRobot product manager who also worked on robotics projects at the Wyss Institute, helped to shepherd Root out of the lab and into the market, in part by running a funding campaign on Kickstarter. That 2016 campaign collected nearly $400,000 in pre-orders — including one from me. In May 2017, Dubrovsky left his job at Harvard to focus on Root the company full time; also around that time, Root raised $2.5 million from the venture capital firm Resolute Ventures. Root now has nine employees.
“We focused on the problem that early coding education is broken,” Dubrovsky says. “It’s broken in the home, and in schools. So it’s a problem that touches both parents and educators.” He says that about 56 percent of Root’s early customers are parents buying one for their children, but he believes schools represent the biggest opportunity for growth.
“We had some educators that backed us during the Kickstarter campaign with their own money who are now going to school administrators and having them order more,” says Dubrovsky. “We’re getting schools ordering six units, 24 units, 30 units.” One teacher, he says, has programmed Root to do a little dance when the classroom gets too loud during quiet time. “The students know they’ll wake up Root, and that’s not good,” Dubrovsky says.
Another Root feature users seem to like is that it has 10 built-in magnets that allow them to build their own accessories that attach to Root, like a plow attachment or a camera mount.
“We’re seeing students building Lego devices that can attach to the top of Root,” Dubrovksy says. Eventually, the company plans to design and sell accessories — add-ons like a communications module that would let two Root robots interact. An Android companion app is also in development.
“The team was the initial thing that got us excited about Root,” says Mike Hirshland, co-founder of Resolute Ventures. But Hirshland says he also believes success in the educational market can help “seed the broader consumer market.”
The challenge for Root is that with hundreds of toys or apps out there to teach coding, “it’s hard to break through the noise without a gigantic marketing budget,” Dubrovsky says. “Most parents who find out about Root find out through word of mouth,” he says, as do teachers. If the volume level of that word of mouth continues to rise — with people sharing details of the projects they’ve done with Root — the company will be off to the races.
“We really would like for Massachusetts to lead the way when it comes to how you integrate robotics and STEM and coding into classrooms,” Dubrovsky says. “That’s what we designed Root to do.”
That, and dial down parental anxiety.