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Root is a robot teaching children code

Its developer says Root can teach even young children to write code.

Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Its developer says Root can teach even young children to write code.

It’s no secret that coding is a bankable skill in Massachusetts.

The economy here is projected to add more than 1,000 software development jobs annually through 2022, making it the most abundant job category for college graduates behind accountants, auditors, and management analysts.

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Companies aren’t just hiring developers, they’re paying them handsomely, too. Software developers’ median annual income is $112,780, more than twice the national average according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Still, the number of students studying computer science actually declined over the first part of the 21st century, data from the National Center for Education Statistics show. As a result, a wave of for-profit coding boot camps have cropped up in cities across the country to teach adults the skills they missed during their formal education.

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The labor bureau says that by 2020 there will be a shortage of 1 million qualified coders to fill an estimated 1.4 million programming positions.

But if you ask Zivthan Dubrovsky, teaching coding during childhood, when neural connections are developing at breakneck speed, is essential.

Enter, Root, a code-teaching robot built by Dubrovsky and his small team at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.

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After more than three years in development and seven prototypes, Root, a six-sided robot-on-wheels, made its formal debut Monday at a prominent education technology summit in San Diego.

“Coding is fundamentally important to this country, and it’s more than just flashy webpages,” said Dubrovsky. He’s a former program and product marketing manager at iRobot, where he helped commercialize the original Roomba.

“We tried to make it fun for kids and easy for teachers who don’t code to use Root and create and teach their own curriculum,” Dubrovsky said.

Root is smaller than Roomba but looks and glides similarly to the vacuuming bot. It’s small and low to the ground, with a center hole where a dry erase marker goes. Root communicates via bluetooth with native software loaded onto a tablet. It has magnetic wheels that let it “drive” determinedly across classroom whiteboards, and some 20 sensors let it interact with the environment and respond to students’ commands.

Though the robot itself can be used by students of any age or coding skill-level, Root’s software developer Julián da Silva says the app will eventually have three levels that get more complex as students begin learning to code. The final level will teach students how to write text-based code.

For now, Root’s makers could only demonstrate the software’s first level, where graphical blocks are dragged in line to create a sequence that tells the robot how to behave. On this level, Dubrovsky says children begin wrapping their minds around the “highly abstract” concepts that underlie code.

Dubrovsky said even young children understand the “if this, then that,” progression of action and reaction, true in life as it is in coding. So on the first level, Root lets children build up a sequence of “if” and “then” commands that the robot plays out in real-time.

For example, a child working with the app could drag and drop the graphical icon that tells Root to move forward. If Root does, another icon could tell it then to glow red or spin in a circle or sing a musical note.

Since coding relies on this kind of conditional logic, Dubrovsky said even kindergarten students can begin laying the groundwork for a future in programming. He said his three young kids, whom he enlisted as early-stage testers, reacted positively to the interactive robot and its “radically easy” app.

Currently, Dubrovsky and his team are courting investors to bring Root to market, which they say could happen in the second quarter of next year. The system will cost $199 for schools and $249 for individuals, who pay more for a roll-up whiteboard, which most schools already in classrooms.

Amanda Burke can be reached at amanda.burke@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @charlie_acb.
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