Programming can be a lonely, abstract, and ultimately frustrating activity. Even when building the simplest of applications, you can spend hours—indeed days—in front of a computer, coding in some arcane programming language and then running the code and then debugging it and then running it again. Ad infinitum.
But as programming becomes an increasingly important part of the modern world—this is the new construction—educators and researchers are trying to make it more fun and approachable, particularly for young kids with little patience for frustration and abstraction. In recent years, they’ve tried everything from kids books to games likeMinecraft. Now, with a new initiative called Project Bloks, a team of Google researchers is trying to make coding a hands-on experience—literally.
They’ve designed a set of blocks—physical, electrical blocks—that you can snap together to form a real program. Using these blocks, you could create a musical instrument or an automated toy or a device that sends messages to smartphones and tablets. The idea—called tangible computing—dates back at least to the 1970s, and shows tremendous potential for helping students learn to program says Tim McNerney, who researched tangible computing at MIT. “Kids really benefit from interacting with physical objects,” he says. “It lets them collaborate with other kids instead of getting ‘sucked into the screen’ and forgetting their classmates around them. It transforms programming from a solitary to a social activity.”