Pick a language, any language. This polyglot robot teaches kids to code

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As founders of the Indian Girls Code project, sisters Deepti Suchindran and Aarti Prasad worked to introduce computer science courses at underfunded education centers in south India. In a region where technical degrees immediately translate to higher-paying jobs, the duo looked to give girls better careers and opportunities to support themselves.

Now the two are bringing years of teaching experience to New England to give minority groups better access to primary-school level computer education programs. They’ve even built a robot that they have demonstrated at a smattering of gatherings across the city.

Robotix, the Boston-based arm of the Indian Girls Code program, began raising funds on Kickstarter this month. With two weeks to go the campaign is $21,000 over its $50,000 target goal, and the company expects to ship the first order of robots by May 2016.

Simple robots have earned a reputation as something of a gateway tool to programming, particularly when the kids in the class are younger than 10 years old. One popular model is Sphero ($129), made by the Boulder, Colo., company of the same name, which is a programmable robot that looks like a white orb and can be controlled with an app. Leaders of coding programs like Black Girls Code have observed that an early introduction to coding is crucial to cementing students’ relationship with programming and increases the likelihood that they will turn to careers in computer science.

A version of the Phiro robot can be programmed without a computer, using cards with specific instructions that can be swiped at the machine.
A version of the Phiro robot can be programmed without a computer, using cards with specific instructions that can be swiped at the machine.
In this context, the sisters’ decision to follow years of teaching in schools in India with a robot that serves as a prop and educational tool that suits their methods makes sense.

Though Robotix’s Phiro costs about as much as Sphero, the feature that sets it apart is its range: Suchindran says it can support several programming languages and can accommodate learners at every level of proficiency. “The diversity in the ways in which they can learn how to code is something we’ve found educators value,” Suchindran said.

Open-source programming languages such as Scratch, a starter language developed at MIT, or the  visual programming language Snap! developed at the University of California at Berkeley, host vibrant online communities where problem-solvers stuck on a hurdle can look for assistance, or bond, or find ideas for project. Suchindran said that it was a priority for Robotix coders to be able to access the community offered by those gathering spaces online.

There seems to be interest — the program got funded in its first week on Kickstarter. “We are going to be using that money to manufacture the robot and market it to schools,” Suchindran said.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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