Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Turing Tumble: Gaming on a Mechanical Computer

Turing Tumble is a physical toy that teaches kids aged 8+ how to build marble-operated mechanical computers. That idea probably takes a bit of getting used to, but it's a pretty neat concept that teaches kids some of the fundamentals of computing in a really accessible way.

The problems that kids need to solve with Turing Tumble are introduced in the context of a futuristic graphic novel.

Finding ways to teach kids how computers work at the lowest level is tricky so I was really interested when Paul Boswell (the inventor) contacted us about Turing Tumble. A lot of kids have a big gap between knowing the names of the parts inside a computer and being able to program them using human-friendly programming languages. The relationship between those two things is often a mystery.

The idea of Turing Tumble that you must place different kinds of pieces onto a vertical board which then routes marbles according to your placement. When a marble reaches the bottom of the board it triggers the release of another marble on the same side.

Using this approach you can build complex behaviours from simple parts which are basically how computers operate at the lowest level. Turing Tumble shows this in a very tangible way.

Turing Tumble doesn't just give you a bunch of problems to solve, the problems are built into a graphic novel. My kids have said that they want more story-based learning. They have recently really enjoyed Curly Bracket and the Hidden Code, Escape the The Room: Stargazer's Manor and the Mysterious Benedict Society series and puzzles.

I've had chance to preview the Turing Tumble material with my 8 and 10 year old children and they loved the story-based approach which features space engineer Alia who is trapped on planet Eniac (a nice nod towards computing history.) The graphics are very high quality and the story is fast-paced and engaging.The puzzles do a great job of showing how you can build complex systems from simple building blocks. I can see that the later puzzles are going to be pretty challenging.

We also love that Turing Tumble is a physical toy. We're not concerned about screentime per se, but that it displaces practical hands-on activities that develop kids physical skills. It's always good to have more options that involve physically doing stuff.

We like that the game is named after Alan Turing, the computing pioneer who formalised the idea of computability, Boswell says that Turing Tumble is theoretically Turing complete - it could solve any computable problem if you had a big enough board!

Boswell notes that he was inspired in part by the Digi-Comp II mechanical computer, children's author Laurie Wallmark mentioned the Digi Comp in our interview with her.

Paul Boswell has taught Computing as a professor at the University of Minnesota and has three kids and both sets of experience come through in the design of Turing Tumble.

Boswell is seeking crowdfunding, check out the Turing Tumble campaign on Kickstarter.

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