A team of Microsoft researchers and designers based in the company’s Cambridge, UK, lab is taking a coding concept one step further. The team has created what they are calling a physical programming language. It’s a way for children to physically create code by connecting pods together to build programs.
In a blog post on the the Microsoft website, the system, called Project Torino, is designed to make sure that kids who have visual impairments or other challenges can participate in coding classes along with all their classmates. But Cecily Morrison, one of the researchers working on the project, is hoping the system also will be appealing and useful for all learners, regardless of whether they have visual impairments or other challenges.
“One of our key design principles was inclusion. We didn’t want to isolate these kids again,” she said. “The idea was to create something that a whole mainstream class could use, and they could use together.”
The ultimate goal is even more ambitious: To get more kids with visual impairments and other challenges, such as dyslexia or autism, on the path to becoming software engineers and computer scientists.
“It’s clear that there’s a huge opportunity in professional computing jobs,” Morrison said. “This is a great career for a lot of kids who might have difficulty accessing other careers.”
A project like this can serve two goals: Technology companies say they are struggling with a “digital skills gap” that is leaving them without enough engineers and coders to meet their needs, and experts say it can be difficult for visually impaired people to find meaningful, accessible career paths.
The World Health Organization estimates that 285 million people worldwide are blind or visually impaired, and the vast majority of those people live in low-income settings. In the United Kingdom alone, the Royal National Institute of Blind People says only one in four working age adults who are blind or partially sighted are doing paid work.
Steve Tyler, head of solutions, strategy and planning for the Royal National Institute of Blind People, which is working with Morrison on the project, said coding has often been thought of as a promising career path for people with visual impairments. In recent years, however, computer science has come to rely much more on pictorial, graphical and conceptual coding methods, making it harder for kids with visual impairments to get exposed to the field.
Tyler said systems like Project Torino could help provide that path.
“This, for us, was a core reason for running with a project like this and supporting it,” Tyler said.
Tyler, who has a background in education, also said there is currently a woeful lack of resources for visually impaired children who have an interest in coding or more generally are ready for an introduction to mathematical and strategic thinking. That’s a huge problem because a child’s first introduction to these concepts can be a make or break moment for whether they end up being interested in pursuing a career in those types of fields.
Traditionally, Tyler said teachers have used chess to teach those kinds of strategic concepts to visually impaired children.
“I see this project a little bit like that,” he said. “It brings to life, in a 21st century way, that kind of ability to teach children these new concepts.”