MIT blends Montessori and technology with Learning Beautiful project
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MIT blends Montessori and technology with Learning Beautiful project

by Freya Lucas

January 23, 2023

“Mens et manus,” or “mind and hand” is the motto of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and this has taken on new life thanks to the Learning Beautiful project, a startup which offers materials that help children explore computer science concepts through hands-on learning, based on the Montessori ethos and way of teaching. 


Learning Beautiful began with a Media Lab project and offers materials that help children explore computer science concepts through hands-on learning. Children often learn best when they’re allowed to explore the environment around them, building models of the world by picking things up and moving them around, an MIT representative said. 


Learning Beautiful makes tactile materials to inspire hands-on learning for children aged between the ages of three and nine years of age. The materials, which are designed to explain simple concepts in computer science, promote child-driven, physical learning that aligns with the Montessori method of education.


“For young children, being able to build and then experience with their hands is so important,” explained Learning Beautiful Founder Kim Smith Claudel. 


“I don’t think I need to do much convincing about the importance of limiting screen time for children. I focus more on the positive things we can give to children, and I think giving them these sensorial, tactile materials is a developmentally enriching opportunity,” added Ms Smith Claudel. 


Materials include things like binary cards and pixel boards made from sustainably sourced wood, cork, and canvas. To date, Learning Beautiful has sold over 2,000 materials to schools and libraries and trained about 500 teachers to guide learning activities.


Ms Smith Claudel believes the concepts illuminated by the materials are a great primer to more advanced computer science education later in life.


“If we think about how we scaffold learning for subjects like reading and writing and math, we have all these things in place to build a strong foundation in early childhood to help progression in these subjects,” she said. “But there really wasn’t something that did the same thing for computer science.”


Ms Smith Claudel became enamored with some of the materials being used in classrooms and intrigued by the research showing young children learn more effectively by physically interacting with their environment. She officially enrolled in the Media Lab as a graduate student in 2015.


After hearing frustration from MIT computer scientists that too many educational materials were screen-based and focused solely on coding, she and others in her lab worked with them to build materials that demonstrated different computational concepts.


“The children are very helpful because it either works or it doesn’t work,” she explained. “Feedback from teachers is also helpful because either they understand it or they don’t, and if they don’t then we’ve failed.”


Ms Smith Claudel went through the MIT DesignX accelerator run through the School of Architecture, where they started hearing from people who wanted copies of their research materials for their classrooms and libraries.


“DesignX shifted the whole paradigm of how I thought about the research, and turned it into ‘How can we take this solid foundation and spin it into a business?’” she explained.


As she neared graduation in 2017, she got her first order for materials from the Chicago Public Library, which had seen her work develop at the Media Lab. She still remembers juggling finishing her master’s work with building each of those early sets by hand in MIT’s makerspaces, using CNC machines and spending hours sanding, painting, and gluing.


The company’s first series of materials includes pixel boards that demonstrate how computers represent images through 1s and 0s and a “binary tree” that introduces the concept of data structures as the child connects the branches and builds the tree.


“With the binary tree, a 2- or 3-year-old might start playing using what we call sensorial exploration,” Ms Smith Claudel said. “What they’re doing is experimenting and discovering through a physical process. They’re starting to see things fit together. They’re starting to build something, getting a sense of balance. They’re also noticing the pieces are different shapes, different colors, so they’re building these models. They’re learning from that whole process.”


Learning Beautiful also provides support and educational materials for teachers. Lately the company has been focusing on scaling its teacher training efforts, including by building a virtual training program.


Learning Beautiful’s next products will expand beyond computer science to encourage ecological thinking, helping children understand environmental systems around them and their schools. As the company’s sales grow, it’s developed a program where proceeds from sales to one community can help fund donations to communities with fewer resources.


“Hands-on learning is effective for all of us,” Ms Smith Claudel said. “For children, most of their brain development is happening between zero and three years of age, so physical interaction is so rich — understanding spatial relationships, how to hold things, how to use their body, how to take inputs from the world and process them in their minds. That’s what MIT’s ‘mind and hand’ motto is about: this connection between the physical experiences and what we’re building in our mind.”


For more information on Learning Beautiful, please see here

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