Ph.D. THESIS DEFENSE: Tangible Computer Programming:

April 10, 2009
Halligan 106


Abstract In designing digital technology to support the future of education, we must look beyond desktop computers and conventional modes of interaction and consider the food of emerging technologies that already play a prominent role in the everyday lives of children. In this dissertation, I will present a research project that builds on tangible user interface (TUI) technology to support computer programming and robotics activities in real life educational settings. In particular, I will describe the design and implementation of a tangible computer programming language called Tern. I will also describe Tern's use in two educational settings: as part of an interactive museum exhibit called RobotPark at the Boston Museum of Science; and as part of a curriculum unit that I helped pilot in _ve Kindergarten classrooms in the greater Boston area. In both cases, Tern allows children to create simple computer programs to control a robot. However, rather than using a keyboard or mouse to write programs on a computer screen, children can instead use Tern to construct programs using a collection of interlocking wooden blocks.

RobotPark is a permanent exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science that was visited by approximately 20,000 people in its first year on display. I will describe the year-long, iterative design process that resulted in the exhibit installation itself. I will also present a study that evaluates the effectiveness of the Tern tangible programming interface from an informal science learning perspective compared to a standard graphical programming interface. The results show that museum visitors found the tangible and the graphical systems equally easy to understand; however, visitors were significantly more likely to try the exhibit and to actively work together in groups with the tangible interface. These results were particularly strong for children.

My work with tangible programming languages in Kindergarten classrooms is part of a research project called Tangible Kindergarten, a collaboration between the Tufts University Human- Computer Interaction Lab and Developmental Technologies Research Group. The goal of this project is to develop in-depth, age- appropriate computer programming and robotics curriculum based on Tern. I will describe the iterative development of both the curriculum and the supporting technology as well as the results of our pilot studies in multiple Kindergarten classrooms in the greater Boston area.