A wall-crawling robot will soon teach Harvard students how to code

  • Harvard will start using Root — a hexagonal, wall-crawling robot — to help teach undergrads coding.
  • Investors including TLP Partners and Resolute Ventures are putting $2.5 million in seed funding into Root.

Harvard computer science professor Radhika Nagpal is hoping to use a robotic toy she helped develop, Root, to teach coding languages like Python and Javascript in her undergraduate courses at Harvard.

The Root prototype is already being used in Harvard research labs. And the Root will be widely available this spring.

The hexagonal Root, priced at $199, looks something like iRobot's Roomba vacuum cleaners. But instead of driving around a home sucking up dust bunnies, the Root can climb walls and roll across any smooth surface it encounters. It scans surfaces, writing or erasing as it goes, and can play music and sense and respond to its environment. Users can remotely control the Root or create programs for it through an iPad.

They can also program Root to scrawl out information on a white board at a particular time of day, create a mural, clean a whiteboard any time it is dirty or sound an alarm whenever a person walks through a doorway.

Nagpal said students who want to learn coding for robotics now do so mostly by working in simulation. "They don't see how sensors behave differently in the real world," she said. Root is developed, in part, to give them something immediately tangible.

Robotic toys that teach kids to code abound, including Cubetto, Dash & Dot, Ozobot, and Fisher Price's crawling Code-a-pillar.

But most focus on primary and secondary school-age kids. Root teaches them the basics but allows them to write and execute ever-more sophisticated programs as they grow. The idea is to provide entertainment, and a great teaching tool, from kindergarten through college.

Root Robotics CEO and co-founder Zee Dubrovsky, a long-time designer of consumer electronics, said robots are a creative gateway for kids who want to learn coding, the way that LOGO and Basic programming languages were for an earlier generation. "But hardware won't work unless it's cost-effective from the parent's point of view," he said. "No parent wants to put another toy on the pile of stuff to cart off to Goodwill."

Dubrovsky said his start-up has raised $2.5 million in seed funding from TLP Investment Partners with Resolute Ventures and Dream Incubator to begin producing and distributing its robots.

Correction: The headline and story have been changed to say that the timing for the use of Root to teach coding at Harvard is still to be determined.