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Thinking Outside the Brick: Learning Through Digital Play


Building simple programmable robots can help students learn key STEM concepts, design skills, and creative program solving. Unfortunately, access to existing robotic kits is limited to those who can afford the high prices, have a supportive adult to teach and encourage them, or have enough prior knowledge and personal interest to use a less expensive open source microcontroller.

To address these issues, I propose to design an inexpensive kit that scaffolds the process of identifying, configuring, and programming hardware components.  The kit will teach nine- to eleven-year-old children how programmable devices work through play and exploration. Using readily available materials, a simple programming interface and a microcontroller,students will build a basic robotic device. The kit will include documentation and instruction for teachers and parents. Through trial and error, creative problem solving, and logic, kids with no prior experience will become “mini-Makers” and feel a sense of agency to hack and tinker with their electronic devices.



From LEGO Mindstorms to simple snap circuits, most existing kits can trace their roots to constructivist learning theory.# By using active, hands-on techniques, students “construct” and reflect on their own learning. In the context of computer programming, the constructivist approach is traditionally associated with a bricolage style, including hacking, mixing pieces of code, and tinkering with systems using trial and error.

In the influential essay “Epistemological Pluralism,” Sherry Turkle and Seymour Papert describe how “bricoleur” learners struggle when immersed in a formal, canonical computer culture.# Bricoleurs prefer to use concrete materials to try, test, and explore. While “planners” interact with a program or system after they understand its rules, bricoleurs understand systems through deconstructing, re-arranging, and assembling components in new ways. These students see a system as a set of relationships that can be reorganized and adjusted. I will design my kit to appeal to this style of learning.

The constructivist learning process, like the design process, demands growth through continual evaluation, adjustment, and reflection. Some scholars have suggested that the architecture studio can be an effective model for the classroom.#  Projects like Studio-H# and Public Workshop# empower students as designers and builders, while the design firm IDEO offers a toolkit entitled Design Thinking for Educators.# Jochen Rick and K.K. Lamberty use Donald Schön’s definition of design as “a process of reflection-in-action” as a starting point for “medium-based design.”# Within the constructivist framework, an effective kit should encourage students to practice design thinking.

Kits that follow this model may not include all the parts, explicit instructions, and a specific goal, but instead provide a selection of materials and just enough scaffolding to empower exploration of the system and its components. For example, the PicoCricket kit provides a selection of familiar building materials (LEGO bricks) along with art and craft supplies (lanyards, poms poms, pipe cleaners). The suggested projects, called “kinetic sculptures,” combine simple engineering and an open-ended, art-based approach. Leaving room for mistakes provides the student with enough freedom to design, rather than assemble.

Bricolage is echoed in the “Maker Movement,” a recent technological expansion of DIY culture.#  With roots in craft, tinkering, and open source culture, the Maker Movement is quickly making inroads in formal and informal educational settings. Last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded a large grant for a Makerspace pilot program in California schools.#  These Maker workshops ask kids to look “under the hood” of basic digital devices, combating the “black box” effect and granting them the agency to tinker with devices without the risk of breaking valuable electronics.

I plan to draw from academic research on constructionist approaches, as well as resources in the more grassroots Maker Movement, to design an open-ended kit that encourages students to practice design thinking while experimenting with simple programmable devices.

# — indicate a footnote. For some reason it’s tricky to transfer these from Google docs to WordPress, but I will try to paste them in soon


There are two models of programmable robot kits: the digital brick designed for children (LEGO Mindstorms, PicoCricket, littleBits) and the open source microcontroller for a DIY and Maker audience (Hummingbird, Arduino kits). The digital brick kits are based on the idea of wiring and programmable LEGO playsets. Instead of building a stationary structure, kids can snap together interlocking bricks to make moving robots or kinetic sculptures.


Since Mindstorms include LEGO parts as construction materials, users are limited to building only with the proprietary plastic bricks and pieces that snap together, making it difficult to repurpose non-LEGO building materials or electronics. The act of “snapping” bricks together dramatically simplifies the act of construction. The programmable controller is simply a LEGO brick “black box” onto which other digital components are snapped.


Research suggests that greater transparency increases the user’s motivation, creativity, and critical thinking skills.#  Digital brick kits hide the inner workings of their components. Users can’t see or touch the PicoBoard underneath the hard plastic shell. They can’t access the individual pins or reconfigure the connections between the inputs and the board. The four ports on the PicoBoard are all identical and use the same connector for input sensors and lights.


In contrast, open source microcontrollers were not developed as toys, but have been adapted as open-ended learning tools. They are frequently used in formal and informal educational settings and are a low-cost alternative to the digital brick kits.


While open source microcontrollers like Arduino offer a huge degree of transparency and are ideal for Makers and hobbyists, the complexity of the board may intimidate novice users. Even the simplified, kid-friendly Hummingbird board does not look like a playful object. The Arduino does not offer enough built-in scaffolding for inexperienced students and teachers because it was not developed with a young student audience in mind. While many free tutorials are available online for Arduino users, they encourage discovery through a series of explicit steps that lead to a predetermined result.


In creating my kit, I seek to preserve the transparency of the open source microcontroller while developing scaffolding appropriate for a young novice user. Students will practice connecting circuits with wires, not snappable bricks. Rather than completing a set of instructions to create a specific product, the students will have the freedom to design their own creations. A central challenge will be providing appropriate instructional support.



What kind of kit and lesson plan combine the best aspects of both of these models? How can I preserve the simple construction and programming interface of the digital brick with the transparency of the open source microcontroller?



Using the Arduino as a platform, I will create a kit of construction materials and a scaffolded lesson plan. These components will be “everyday” items found around the classroom or house that can be integrated with electronic components. I plan to experiment with the use of extremely common supplies like paper.# To encourage open-ended exploration and discourage assembly, I will use several strategies described by Nathalie Rusk et al. (2008) to appeal to the widest possible group of students:#


1. Provide a theme, not a challenge.

2. Integrate art and engineering.

3. Encourage storytelling.

4. Organize exhibitions, not challenges.


Incorporating a narrative element will encourage expressive design and programming, rather than utilitarian construction skills. Students will not be competing with each other to achieve one goal, but working together to tell a story through their programming of simple robots and kinetic sculptures.


Existing Work


This approach is rooted in the lineage from Piaget’s epistemological constructivism, to Papert’s constructionist theory, to the work of Mitchel Resnick and the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT Media Lab. Because LEGO Mindstorms, PicoCricket, and Scratch are based upon research from MIT, this project will draw heavily from the developers of these technologies and the researchers who have studied the ways in which they can be used in formal and informal settings.


CMU’s CREATE lab has also published useful research papers on the development of Hummingbird and robot design workshops. A current group at CREATE lab, The Children’s Innovation Project, is testing a kit of electrical components with kindergarten students and embraces a “play with real stuff” philosophy.#


DIY and maker cultures and the work of Leah Buechley and the High-Low Tech group will be additional areas of inquiry.


Given the brief time frame, the scope of the project will be scale to the timeframe and resources available. The project will be geared to an informal workshop or home learning environment, rather than a formal classroom, where curriculum standards could be an issue.


The deliverable will include:


  • a sample kit with programmable device (an Arduino or similar open source microcontroller)

  • programming interface (likely using Scratch)

  • “everyday” craft materials for construction

  • lesson plan for teachers and parents

  • website and mini-documentary with complete documentation

  • design document


The resources I will need for this project include samples of existing kits for research, hardware (programmable device, batteries, sensors and other components), and “everyday” craft materials for testing and demonstrations. I plan to identify at least one group of students to test the kit in a small group setting with a teacher or workshop leader. I have been in contact with a local teacher, and plan on pursuing other options, including Boys and Girls Club and Freeside Atlanta.


Spring, 2013

  • Analyze existing systems

  • Research curriculum and learning standards for computer science and programming in schools and less formal workshops

  • Review of existing approaches

Summer, 2013

  • Identify appropriate group/s of students and teachers for research and evaluation

  • Observation/user research with students and teachers

  • Continuous review of technology

  • Initial definition of theme and develop possible scenarios

Fall, 2013

  • Develop kit and curriculum guide for educators

  • Continuous documentation

  • User testing with students/teachers

Spring, 2014

  • Iterate

  • Final documentation