Cubetto Robot Kit Brings Coding to Students with Special Needs
Over the past few years, coding, with the Hour of Code and other initiatives, has become a common curricular theme. From early grades, right through competitions with sophisticated robots in senior high schools or app hackathons. The Cubetto Robot Kit can bring this important strand of STEM learning to students with cognitive, physical and sensory challenges.
What is Coding?
Coding isn’t just about designing robots and writing software. Coding is essentially about developing logical sequences of events that achieve a repeatable goal. It means breaking down tasks into their component parts and -- despite the stereotype of the lone programmer typing away in his cubicle, coffee and carbs close at hand – that is highly collaborative.
Unfortunately the technologies used for coding in schools has typically limited the participation of students with cognitive, sensory and/or physical challenges.
But Cubetto Coding Robot’s unique approach, and carefully designed screen-free interface can bring coding to students with special needs.
Coding with words on screen is a problem
Coding languages typically involve a screen and keyboard based instructions. Coding languages designed for school-age users like the popular Scratch and Blockly (see screen shots above) add graphical cues of colours, and shapes to support new learners. Even though designed for young learners, these coding systems rely on quite a few pre-requisite skills that can be problematic for learners with special needs, such as:
- drag and drop manipulation
- literacy skills
- visual skills
...(with Cubetto) Kids don’t need to read in order to understand the real fun and creativity that comes with coding.
Chris Mairs, CBE; Computer Scientist with a visual impairment, fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering
Cubetto - a screen-free interface
A Cubetto kit consists of a wooden robot that is programmable with a unique screen-less, tactile interface to go on journeys over a gridded map.
The robot’s journey is programmed by placing blocks on a board to set direction and action. On the bottom of the board, is an area where you can program a repeatable sequence of actions that is activated by one tile in the main journey board.
A big sturdy button activates the journey.
Showing the kit to a group of experienced special needs educators and consultants in British Columbia recently, these points came up:
- Language free coding.
- No need to be able to use a mouse or touch screen to select a tile – grasp it, use a communication board, or gaze to indicate choice.
- Chunky tiles with unique tactile clues make the whole system easy to work with students with visual impairments.
- Lights and sound cues for each action, connect the coding with all the steps in the journey – reducing memory load and reinforcing the connections between instruction and action.
Although the process of solving coding problems is a highly collaborative one, a computer can be very solitary machine – and iPad even more so. The viewing area, unless it’s projected, even on the best screens is inherently small. Whatever the interface – touch, mouse, keyboard, switch – a computer or tablet is designed for one user’s input at a time.
Cubetto's interface is more like a puzzle. Put it on the floor or a table and we’ve seen many students working on the interface at the same time. Or the teacher can pick up the board and allow each student to contribute in turn. All students can see the coding sequence and make their own refinements – no need for a projector, additional screens, multiple interfaces or any other techy fiddling.
Launching a Cubetto on its journey is done with the press of big friendly button that is easy to target and emits a satisfying, specific chime. In a collaborative learning environment, Cubetto's interface allows for multiple means of participation so that children with profound and complex challenges can engage in activities.
Cubetto is inherently hackable too.
Cubetto is a simple wooden cube on wheels. The adventure map that comes with a Cubetto is blank on the other side. Classrooms have been decorating, customizing and adding elements to both – or “hacking” – to create their own adventures and missions for Cubetto:
- Writing stories, decorating the simple 10 X 10 map with tape or fabric markers to go on their own adventures.
- Add daily schedule elements for Cubetto to preview a student or the class’ school journey
- Using him as a game piece for giant size group games
- Put numbers or phonemes, or words on the cubetto map to create literacy (e.g. word building, sentence building) or numeracy activities (e.g. addition, shape building)
- Attaching a marker or pen to Cubetto to make a drawing tool for a giant picture
- Adding percussion musical instruments – xylophone, cymbals, chimes to his route to create a song.
- Adding blocks, people or other 3D elements to map for an adventure.
Cubetto can be a break through device for students in an integrated or a designated special needs classroom setting. As Cubetto finds its way to more and more classrooms, we’re looking forward to teachers sharing more ways the friendly wooden robot with the unique coding interface engages students with special needs with the essentials of programming and coding.
- Bogdan Pospielovsky