Something Old, Something New: Blending Physical Objects and Computing For Learning

Using rice and computing to learn about topography

Given that Sarah and I love science, we enjoy exposing our family to novel learning experiences. In the past month, we had the opportunity to enjoy the Museum of Science in Boston, MA. I greatly enjoy hands on learning. Getting to see my kids play with some of the Tangible Computing exhibits in the computer science section was a blast! The exhibits enabled my kids to learn and explore by playing with ordinary physical objects augmented by computing. I found this educational technology fun and approachable.

Researchers at the MIT Tangible Media lab contributed a teaching tool to the museum exploring topography, the flow of fluids, and making 3D models. In the Sandscape exhibit, the children played in a 5ft by 5ft sandbox. The sandbox structure was filled with rice that the kids could move around to experiment with changes in topography. My kids were captivated by this exhibit. To learn more about SandScape, Professor Hiroshi ISHII and his team of researchers in human computer interaction, please check out the following video and visit their website.


I also wanted to celebrate the teachers from the museum. As my children played with SandScape, the teacher gracefully used questions to help them discover the meaning of the different colors on the SandScape topography map. For instance, by encouraging the kids to do small experiments with the rice and asking leading questions, the kids concluded correctly that “red” represented high elevation while “blue” represented low.

Since I witnessed this learning experience, I have started to encourage my kids to explore through leading questions,doing small experiments at home, and letting them make conclusions. That has been fun!

The Tangible learning space included another fun exhibit enabling kids to control a robot. In this exhibit, the children arranged various puzzle pieces together to form a computer program that will be executed by the robot. One puzzle piece represents moving forward. Another puzzle piece represents turning 90 degrees. Still another represents moving backward. I love how this exhibit built upon kids natural ability to play with puzzle pieces. Once the puzzle pieces are put together, the kids press a button executing the program. Using a web camera positioned above the exhibit, the computer reads the chain of puzzle pieces and controls the robot accordingly. I started to wonder if Scratch was inspired by this exhibit. I really want to build this at home!

Using Puzzle Pieces To Control a Robot

The “hands-on” learning experience and staff at Museum of Science at Boston are amazing. I highly recommend the experience to everyone! For our education and parent readers, I have collected helpful teaching resources from the museum that you can include in your lessons. Make sure to check out the other research projects from the MIT Tangible Media lab.

What kinds of “hands-on” learning excites your kids to learn?



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