Project Torino is a research project that has created a physical programming language for teaching computational thinking skills and basic programming concepts to children age 7-11 inclusive of children with visual disabilities.
‘Project Torino, a system consisting of a programming language and large colorful toys called pods, which can be used to make sounds, stories, poems, and songs in order to teach coding concepts to children with visual impairments.’
Working in pairs or alongside, children plug together beads to create code that produces music or stories. Utilizing the curriculum exercises provided, children build up an understanding of code and computation concepts.
Advanced students can use an accompanying digital interface to transition from the physical code to the digital code. This enables students to move onto mainstream programming tools with a strong understanding of the foundational concepts of computing.
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.
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. Traditionally, Tyler said teachers have used chess to teach those kinds of strategic concepts to visually impaired children.
Microsoft says that Project Torino was designed in close collaboration with roughly a dozen young students in the UK, and incorporated feedback from them to arrive at this stage. I loved this example of their teamwork shared by Nicolas Villar, a senior researcher in Microsoft’s Cambridge research lab:
‘The team originally made the pods all white, until the kids with limited vision told them that more colors would help them. And although in electronics there’s often a push to make things as small as possible, with this project they found the kids were more engaged when the pods were larger, in part because two kids working together would often both physically hold the pod and touch hands as part of that teamwork.’
Project Torino Beta Signup:
Microsoft Research and the Royal National Institute for the Blind are collaborating to provide 100 children the opportunity to use the physical programming language in a beta trial starting in Autumn 2017.
For now, the beta is focused only on the UK, which has spearheaded a massive effort to get more kids interesting in coding. Eventually, they hope to make it more broadly available to teachers and students outside of the UK.