BOSTON, March 12 (UPI) -- A new activity designed for preschoolers allows participants to program a robot named Dragonbot to respond to series of stimuli. What appears to be little more than having little ones put stickers on a piece of paper turns out to be world's first computer programming class for preschoolers.
Designed by researchers at the MIT Media Laboratory, the activity works as follows: children, ages 4 to 8, build templates using square, triangle and arrow stickers. They then fill in these templates with symbols for stimuli (thumbs up or thumbs down) and responses (facial expressions).
In the future, the robot will be designed to recognize the sticker sequences via camera, but for now, the program codes are entered manually by researchers via a tablet computer.
When introducing a child participant and Dragonbot to each other, researchers had the preschooler initiate contact by displaying a single response sticker -- show the robot an angry face, for example, and its eyes would narrow and brows arch. But when presented with a sequence (a series of symbols denoting stimuli and responses), the robot would nod and say, "I've got it."
Researchers say the children were able to distinguish the difference between a single command and a sequence. And in post-activity interviews, the children seemed to understand that sequences altered the robot's insides -- they recognized themselves as programmers, in other words.
Researchers say the activity bridges next-level programming theories with vital early education concepts.
"It's programming in the context of relational interactions with the robot," Edith Ackermann, a developmental psychologist and visiting professor with MIT's Personal Robots Group, said in a press release.
Ackermann is the co-author of a new paper on the activity's scientific bona fides; the paper was published online this week.
"This is what children do -- they're learning about social relations, Ackermann said. "So taking this expression of computational principles to the social world is very appropriate."
Perhaps most impressively, the basic activity incorporates a 21st century way of thinking about programming -- a scenario-based approach, as opposed to sequential programming.
"The systems we're programming today are not sequential, as they were 20 or 30 years back," explained Michal Gordon, the study's lead author. "A system has many inputs coming in, complex state, and many outputs."
"The idea is to describe your code in little scenarios, and the engine in the back connects them," she added. "You could think of it as rules, with triggers and actions."
Sequential programming might better describe the type of programming that governs the most basic of computer programs, while scenario-based systems programming better describes how a smartphone works.
"It's actually how we think about how programs are written before we try to integrate it into a whole programming artifact," Gordon said. "So I was thinking, 'Why not try it earlier?'"