Play Works Studio, a new, Seattle-based company with the mission of teaching programming and robotics to girls, has launched in full force and needs your help. With the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation and a partnership with the University of Washington’s Institute of Learning and Brain Science, they have been able to build and begin play-testing their prototype RoBees game, which aims to teach children the basic principles of programming by guiding a robotic bee, with directions sent via Bluetooth, across a selection of hexagonal tiles, using IR sensors to find its way. You may have seen this prototype in action when they came to Ada’s for a play-test on September 20th. Play Works Studio continues to work hard, applying for future grant funding and asking for donations as they take the project to the next level and create a design for mass production at an affordable price.
The project began as an idea from founder Adriana Moscatelli. After years working in the gaming and tech industries she began to wonder why there was a lack of women in her field, and a lack of girls playing her games. She began to look at some of the psychological research done on the games and discovered that many she was working on, like Legos and Magic the Gathering, were targeted towards and had a following of mainly boys. One game, Pokemon, however, had a much larger following of girls. Andriana wondered why girls were playing Pokemon, but not Magic the Gathering. She eventually came to the conclusion that there was a difference in the culture of the games, with Pokemon allowing girls to imagine themselves a part of the world. Maybe, she wondered, it’s about building a culture that is open to girls integrating into it, and creating a product that uses story-lines that are acceptable and approachable to girls as well as boys.
Andriana began working with Lego Mindstorms, a robotics program for children, and mentoring kids. Though Mindstorms has had some luck at getting girls involved, the lack of gender diversity was still apparent. Out of the eighteen children Andriana was mentoring, only two were girls. Though she was there to provide a powerful female influence to the girls and show them that girls can enjoy robotics and programming too, there still seemed to be a disconnect. Andriana attributes this problem to the marketing campaigns of the products. These products are sold mostly to boys. There are mainly boys on the covers, and research shows that vehicular toys of any kind are almost exclusively targeted to boys. This exclusive marketing may make parents reluctant to buy a “boy’s toy” for their daughters. Can there be a robot toy that has wheels and all the mechanics it takes to control it, but have a theme and a storyline that parents would feel comfortable providing to their children regardless of gender?
And thus, the RoBees game was born. In order to highlight another problem, namely Colony Collapse Disorder, Play Works Studio has made their game all about bees. The game is composed of hexagonal puzzle pieces that can be placed together in a number of different combinations. The player uses a mobile phone app to input commands and make the mechanical bee move across the board to the finish line. The product is currently being targeted to children ages 6 to 10 years old, though the app interface could be modified in the future to teach slightly older children basic coding languages. Each child plays a bee keeper, and is paired with a specific bee that must complete certain tasks along the board before finishing. The game teaches spatial reasoning, having children think about which directions to move the bee around. It also incorporates the concept of nesting, and teaches the children how to nest a loop in the program to repeat a series of directional moves.
You can learn more about PlayWorks Studio and RoBees, as well as make a donation to their project at their website.