Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

The Benefits of Teaching Kids to Code

New BC Professor Marina Umaschi Bers studies how learning to code can benefit children’s overall development. 

A quarter-century ago, computer programming and coding were the stuff of university campuses. These days, however, coding can seem like just another piece of the average elementary school curriculum. The idea is that even our youngest children can benefit from getting a leg up on a lucrative software engineering or cybersecurity career. But to new Boston College Professor Marina Umaschi Bers, who is one of the world’s leading authorities on the design of new technologies in education, teaching kids to code is about much more than vocational skills. Coding, Bers said, is an effective way for children to learn creativity, collaboration, generosity, and open-mindedness. “I understand coding as a way of expression, not only as a way to problem solve,” Bers said. “And when you’re teaching coding, like when you’re teaching anything, you have an opportunity to reach human beings.” 

Bers is the mind behind some of the biggest breakthroughs in coding education. She cocreated the wildly popular ScratchJr, one of the world’s most widely used programming languages for kids aged five to seven, which allows children to develop and customize interactive stories and games for free. She also developed KIBO, a hands-on, programmable robot kit designed to get young learners started with coding and robotics without computers or screens. Bers likens coding to a playground. Children use their minds and bodies to interact, collaborate, invent, and problem-solve, she explained, allowing them to experience “all the richness of a playground.” 

Bers comes to the Heights from Tufts University. She is a member of both the Lynch School’s Department of Formative Education, which focuses on how we educate young people to lead lives of meaning and purpose, and the Computer Science Department. The faculty in the year-old Formative Education department include a philosopher, a historian, an anthropologist, a humanistic psychologist, and a cultural psychologist. Bers, with her computer science background, may seem an unusual addition to this group, but she is a perfect fit, explained Lynch School of Education and Human Development Dean Stanton Wortham. “It seems like her colleagues are very different from her,” Wortham noted, “but they all share this deep interest in the notion of whole human beings and how you facilitate their holistic development.” 

Tess Levinson, a doctoral student at BC who followed Bers from Tufts despite the challenge of switching universities mid-degree, said the department is an excellent match for Bers. “I would have followed Marina anywhere,” Levinson said. “She cares about understanding who we are as whole people, which is why I think a formative education program is a nice fit for her.”

 Among Bers’s many research projects is one funded by the US Department of Education, researching how kindergarteners through second graders in Boston and Rhode Island learn coding. Another project takes place at a school in Jerusalem, where teachers are trained to use coding to help Palestinian and Israeli kindergarteners find common ground, engage in a shared activity of expression, and overcome conflict. 

Bers had her first experience with programming while growing up in Argentina during the eighties. When she was ten, her mother sent her and her brother to an IBM office to learn Logo, a new coding language for children. At first, Bers was more interested in the free soda and cookies than in the coding, but she said she quickly realized that she could use programming as a tool to tell stories. As a young adult in Argentina, Bers first followed her passion for stories into journalism and communication sciences. In the mid-nineties she moved to the States, earning a master’s degree in education at Boston University and then a PhD at MIT. While at MIT, she studied under Seymour Papert, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence and an early advocate of computer science as a tool for childhood development. He also invented Logo, the coding language that Bers learned as a child. 

Bers’s latest project, in collaboration with colleagues at Tufts and the University of California–Irvine, is a prototype for a smart playground at BC’s Children’s Center that will help children develop coding and computation skills while engaging in active play. 

“We’re very pleased that she has joined us,” Wortham said of the Lynch School’s new hire. “She has extraordinary energy. She’s doing so many different high quality, impactful things all at once.” 

“Technology has the potential to make us more human,” Bers said. “Coming to BC for me was a way to do that.”  

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