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Meet the Duo Behind Online Robotics Education Platform CodeJoy

Kelsey Derringer and Matt Chilbert are co-founders of CodeJoy, producing live, interactive, online shows that give kids live control of their cardboard robots, all from a studio in Pittsburgh. In doing so, they are creating a new, fresh fusion of education and entertainment through an interactive medium. 

Make: Tell us about yourself, and why you launched CodeJoy.

Kelsey Derringer: I’m an educator who started out as a middle and high school English teacher, not a STEM teacher at all. And I’ve taught all kinds of things: ballet, summer camp programs — I even taught at a zoo! But when I moved here to Pittsburgh 7 years ago, I started teaching for an afterschool STEM education program for fourth through eighth grade girls with the Carnegie Science Center and the YWCA. I got introduced to coding and robotics because I was asked to teach it as part of this program. My initial reaction was, “I can’t do that. I don’t know how to do robots.” And I didn’t really receive much training with it. But I was shocked — despite their initial reluctance, I saw how much the girls really gravitated towards the creativity aspect of robotics.

I moved into teacher professional development from there. That’s what brought me to work for BirdBrain Technologies as their Professional Development Coordinator, where I started working with Matt. I traveled the country teaching educators how to teach robotics, and I saw in them the same hesitancy I had seen in myself and my students, thinking that robotics would be too difficult. There are financial barriers to entry for many to get into robotics; but beyond that there are a lot of emotional barriers, too. My workshops with BirdBrain were always joyful and full of encouragement more than hard CS concepts, because that’s what these educators needed. Teachers are the gatekeepers of what students learn, and they should be! But that also means our fears limit our students as well. 

So when Matt and I formed CodeJoy, we wanted to help educators and students push past those barriers. What if you didn’t need to buy expensive robotics equipment to engage in robotics? What if we could provide students an opportunity to do robotics even if their teachers weren’t yet comfortable? What if we could show both students and teachers how easy and friendly robotics can be? That is where CodeJoy came from for me — wanting to invite more students and teachers to the robot learning party. My perspective has always been as an educator. I’m not interested in making more roboticists or people with PhDs in CS — more in making sure that when someone gives you an opportunity to do something fun with a robot, that you say, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that before, let’s give it a try.”

Matt Chilbert: Educational media has been my focus since late in high school. Even though I was a kid who liked horror movies, when I got the opportunity to pick up a camera, I gravitated towards the things that I’d seen on Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Those were interesting aesthetics to me that I followed into educational media, which eventually led me to the Jim Henson Company.

But as a person who wanted to produce my own learning media, I felt like I needed more classroom experience, so I started teaching in Oakland California public schools. That led me to the Lawrence Hall of Science where I helped lead the TechHive, a makerspace for underserved teens. That’s where I learned coding and robotics, through teaching it. But to be honest, I wasn’t terribly interested in coding for its own sake. I was interested in puppetry, creating little characters.

After 8 years in the classroom, I was ready to shift back into media, which led me to becoming the Learning Media Producer for BirdBrain Technologies. I created video tutorials and replicable creative robotics designs with their products.

For me, CodeJoy came out of this creative question about the video conference as an entertainment platform. How can we make the video conference look and feel more like a TV show? How could we bring in multiple cameras? How do we bring in pre-recorded video? What does audience engagement look like? How do we hide the seams of this thing to make this truly become a live, interactive TV show? 

Matt and Kelsey, and a couple of their friends. Photo: Ashley Biltz

Make: Part of what you’ve done is to create interactive robots, as opposed to just functional “learn coding” lessons. Why is teaching robotics without a robot helpful, do you think? 

Kelsey: Robotics is such a great entrance into technology. It’s so real. It jumps off the screen and grabs you, because something is really happening. I think it’s a better entrypoint to coding than straight coding, personally. Plus, robotics breaks stereotypes. When you make a robot that brings you joy, it immediately dispels that idea that coding must be “serious” and coders are only certain types of people. A robot can look like anything! That is so inviting to kids and teachers.

Matt: Right, like I found robotics through puppetry. When a robot is a character, well that is automatically interesting.

Kelsey: So robotics is such a great starting point for learning to code, but there are still a lot of barriers to entry for many students and schools. There’s the obvious one: money. Robots require equipment. But even before that, they require someone to advocate for buying the equipment, and they require teachers who know how to use the equipment. In 2017, in all of the US, only something like 36 teachers graduated with CS teaching degrees. Very few teachers feel like they are experts in this field. We don’t want to bypass educators, but we do want to support them to see the possibilities here.

We imagined and created a system in which, if you have internet access, you can do robotics! You can control a real robot! We hope — and we see! — that this lowers that mental barrier for many folks. 

Make: How so?

Kelsey: Well, in the past 3 months alone we’ve served over 4200 students and 500 teachers. One of the most striking pieces of feedback we’ve received from teachers is that, prior to attending a CodeJoy show, only about 30% of teachers were interested in doing robotics with their students. But after having come to one CodeJoy session, that number more than doubles to over 65% of teachers who think that coding and robotics is relevant or interesting to them and their classroom. We just got more teachers to think, “Maybe I could do that!”

Kelsey and Matt work on screen and behind-the-scenes during a show from their studio in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo: Ashley Biltz

Make: Can you talk a little bit about why you teach like you do, live, why you choose it and why you think it’s valuable for others to use? 

Kelsey: Why live interactive teaching? There’s this really important step in learning, the moment you do it and you turn to your teacher and you ask, “Like this?” And you need a teacher to tell you, “Yes! You did it!” Our shows are designed for that moment. They get that feedback through seeing their code in action on a robot, live, no delay. 

Make: Give me an example of a project?

Matt: The one that I’m most excited about right now is our Robot Aerobics show. In this show students learn to code a set of dancing robots. Those robots then teach Kelsey the dance moves created by the students. It’s this hilarious feedback loop, honestly. 

We build robots that they can’t break with code, so that, in this format, anything the kids code is right. The more they push the limits, the funnier it is. It makes Kelsey do something ridiculous. It allows them to play first and learn second. Our shows are designed to reward experimentation. There aren’t rigid goals — there is play and then elevating that play with the stories and narratives they fit into.

Live-controlled Matt the Robot interacts with students from his “studio under the sink.” Photo: Ashley Biltz

Make: You also enable students to get a sense of control over things by actually controlling a robot, not just watching someone else control a robot. You’re able to give control remotely to students and teachers. Can you talk a little bit about that? 

Matt: We have to give a lot of credit to Mike Cotterman who’s the third member of CodeJoy we brought on officially this year. He really developed CodeJoy.Live which is our coding platform. 

Make: How does that work? 

Kelsey: It’s got three elements. First, it’s got live, ultra-low latency video. Second, it’s got live private chats that can only be seen by us.

Third, and this is the real innovation, the platform incorporates two different types of coding built in. There’s one that we call batch coding, where kids can create an algorithm and send that sequence to us. And then we can look at the kids’ different codes and choose which ones to show and use on the robots to scaffold the learning using their actual code. So we’re elevating kids’ code with that. The other type of coding is live control. With sub-one second delay, kids can press buttons on their screen and move real robots to do things like drive a robot car or aim and shoot with a cardboard golf putter. So there’s less coding knowledge in that, but again, it shows you why robotics.

Students submit code to CodeJoy.Live, controlling the cardboard robots during their live shows. Photo: Ashley Biltz

Make: When did you decide to create CodeJoy? 

Kelsey: We founded our LLC in 2019, but we officially launched in March of 2020, which, for those of you keeping track at home, is a very interesting time to launch an online education company. 

Make: It takes some courage to start something in a pandemic. Did you have to change your approach because of this?

Kelsey: Well, we’ve been adjusting the whole time, but in some ways the pandemic has helped. We formed this company with the assumption that we were going to have to explain to people what video conferencing was. And suddenly everybody knew what it was and how to use it, and all the kids had Chromebooks and wifi, because they needed it for school! And all of this groundwork that we thought we were going to need to build, within a semester it was suddenly there.

Make: Can you talk a little bit about what sort of tools and hardware you’re using in the studio? 

Matt: For the studio, we’ve got five DSLR cameras and a webcam set up right now, plus a bunch of lights and some monitors. Everything is hung from a lighting grid to keep wires off the ground and to keep things flexible, because the place does transform a lot between shows. We run all these camera feeds, pre-recorded videos, sound cues, etc into one computer running OBS. All our robots are made with micro:bits, Hummingbird Robotics Kits, and pretty standard craft supplies.

Kelsey finishes a show with live Q&A from learners. Photo: Ashley Biltz

Make: For many people, it may not be obvious why you use six cameras, but it’s because you’re switching different perspectives, doing split screens and things.

Matt: Exactly. These are pretty standard film and television production techniques, right? We’re using the same techniques that filmmakers use to keep your eyes on the movie to keep your mind on the task. When we feel students’ attention wavering a little bit, we switch cameras to bring you back. There is a lot of pacing here.

We’re also blending prerecorded things with live things so that you can’t tell what’s prerecorded and what’s live. It all feels live. 

Kelsey: Plus Matt is using everything he knows about filmmaking: lighting, angles, pacing, video editing. What we’re doing is not something that a teacher like myself could do alone. You have to have video production knowledge as well to do this. So this is not just teaching and it’s not just entertainment. It’s really this very unique sort of fusion of both of those things. But, honestly, all the elements we’re using, you can purchase from Amazon and find in YouTube tutorials.

Make: We’re maybe approaching the end of the pandemic. In the fall, kids will be back in school, but I hope that we don’t lose track of some of the options that have been pioneered during this time, like CodeJoy. In some ways they’re just new options that can coexist within school. What would you like to see happen now?

Matt: CodeJoy was never designed to be just a pandemic solution. Our shows are a solution for engaging more people in robotics. That said, we’re often asked, when a classroom comes to a CodeJoy show, what do they do after that?

Kelsey: Honestly, now that your students and teachers are primed to know why robotics and how robots work after being a part of the show, your district should get a classroom set of robots for students! And here’s how we can help with that: CodeJoy offers focused professional development for teachers to help with classroom integration. We want teachers to feel ownership over robotics tools so that they can bring the creativity and agency of robotics into their classrooms.

Matt: So ironically, the answer to what’s next after our digital lesson is still a physical experience. We want what we start during our shows to land in the hands of the students.

Make: I really am inspired by your story, Kelsey, because there’s a lot of teachers out there who don’t know if this is something they can do and it’s too big a leap to just say, I’ll do it on my own. They need some support and guidance. 

Kelsey: I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it myself, the hesitancy. Very few teachers get into education because they love… technology? No, we love kids. We love learning, and ideas, and hugs, and our subject area. But before we can teach our students, most teachers feel they must know at least the basics of something, so that we can create scaffolded learning experiences. So when we think about equity, teachers’ comfort levels are sometimes more important than students’. So we need experiences that introduce career teachers to things they never learned in school themselves, and follow those experiences up with PD to support them in bringing new tools into their classrooms. 

Make: We’re really happy to be working with you this summer on Maker Camp, which will bring CodeJoy and campers together for more fun experiences like this. 

Kelsey: We’re really excited about that partnership too! It’s been amazing working withMake:  over the last year, experimenting with different formats and ideas. We’ve spent the school year writing new shows and refining them, and we are so excited to bring our live shows to makers and affiliates all over the country so that they can experience coding and robotics, maybe for the first time, and get inspired to say, “Oh, I want to make a mini golf course! Oh, I want to make a robot petting zoo!”

Make: Yeah. I just want to close by remarking that I just enjoy your personal energy and enthusiasm for all of this. And Matt, you might be behind the camera, but you have it just as much as Kelsey does. It’s very rewarding to see you bring these experiences to kids who get to feel something, not just learn something, but feel something and have fun. Doing something that I think is opening a door for them. And also showing them that just this kind of tinkering and other things can be done in any number of ways and to any number of purposes, right?

Kelsey: That’s right. As an English major, as a film major, neither of us went to school for computer science or engineering. We both came to it as a means of accomplishing our other goals, Matt with puppeteering and video production, me as a teacher. As part of CodeJoy, we don’t care if you learn computer science. We want you to have fun with computer science and robots so that you want to come back and learn on your own.

For us, lighting a spark is way more valuable than explaining a rule.

Find CodeJoy online at codejoyeducation.com.

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

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