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From turtles to Tangible Programming Bricks: explorations in physical language design


This article provides a historical overview of educational computing research at MIT from the mid-1960s to the present day, focusing on physical interfaces. It discusses some of the results of this research: electronic toys that help children develop advanced modes of thinking through free-form play. In this historical context, the article then describes and discusses the author’s own research into tangible programming, culminating in the development of the Tangible Programming Bricks system—a platform for creating microworlds for children to explore computation and scientific thinking.

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  1. 1.

    Spirograph is a trademark of Hasbro, Inc.

  2. 2.

    LEGO is a trademark of the LEGO Group.

  3. 3.

    Fred Martin co-created the now famous 6.270 MIT LEGO robot competitions with Randy Sargent, author of the “Interactive C” robot programming language.

  4. 4.

    Brian Silverman was one of Papert’s early students at MIT, who went on to become a founder of Logo Computer Systems, Inc. (LCSI).

  5. 5.

    Mr. Potatohead is a trademark of Hasbro, Inc.

  6. 6.

    PIC is a trademark of Microchip, Inc.

  7. 7.

    Fred Martin’s commercial version, called the Handy Cricket, is about the size of 4×AA batteries.

  8. 8.

    Their paper was accepted for publication concurrently with the commercial release of the Music Blocks product, which was developed independently by Neurosmith.


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The author’s research was funded by the MIT Media Lab’s Things That Think consortium and the LEGO Company (which had no editorial influence over this article). Many thanks go to my thesis committee, Fred Martin, Mitchel Resnick, Hiroshi Ishii, and Hal Abelson for their guidance and encouragement; to Bakhtiar Mikhak and Rick Borovoy for their enthusiastic collaboration; and to Bonnie Friedman, Colin Ferguson, and Shari Goldin for their careful editing and help in preparing this article for publication.

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Correspondence to Timothy S. McNerney.

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McNerney, T.S. From turtles to Tangible Programming Bricks: explorations in physical language design. Pers Ubiquit Comput 8, 326–337 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00779-004-0295-6

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  • Programming languages
  • Microworlds
  • Tangible user interfaces
  • Education
  • Children
  • History of computing
  • Construction toys
  • Hands-on learning