Robofun’s 21st anniversary gives me a tremendous sense of pride and a huge dose of, “what the heck was I thinking?” But, it is also a time of introspection and reflection while I’m still young enough to contemplate the next twenty years. I often wonder, what was it that implanted the idea of starting a business to begin with? But the answer is actually quite obvious – I have always had an insatiable curiosity about learning coupled with an innate resistance to accept the status quo. The intersection of those two elements has defined who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. Robofun® was born before my son and both represent my lifelong passion for teaching and kids.
I invite you to read my life story and how it has led to (what even today seems like a) the crazy idea of starting a business while still pregnant with my now twenty-year-old son.
When I reflect on my journey as an artist, a teacher and a mother, I simply couldn’t sit on the sidelines and miss an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children. But, I didn’t do this alone; I was lucky to have met one of the pillars of kids’ education, Dr. Seymour Papert, the inventor of the programming language LOGO (and the Mathematician who collaborated with LEGO to create LEGO robotics). I have spent thirty years as his friend while learning and being mentored by this brilliant leader.
Our work has been funded by the National Science Foundation as well as the MacArthur foundation. We’ve collaborated with the MIT Media Lab, NYU’s ITP, Columbia's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science as well as the New York City Department of Education. We’ve written a lot of curriculum over the past 20 years. Amongst other things, we wrote the original manual for using technology in Boys and Girls Clubs of America. We wrote the first manual for the YWCA’s Techgyrls program. The original user’s manual for Scratch, the language developed at MIT a few generations after LOGO, was written by me and my staff.
Robofun has taught STEM to over 20,000 children in our private studio on the Upper West side of Manhattan and in over 100 schools across New York City. I employ over 50 people who are as passionate as I am about empowering children. Our mission is to construct solutions that inspire students and teachers, and to address the widest possible range of academic standards through the use of leading-edge technologies.
Even after twenty years I feel strongly that our work has just begun. The proliferation of our competitors is a testament, and proof, that “we’re on to something.” And although we feel that our programs are unique and benefit from our integrative approach to educating children, I am especially proud that all of us are making a difference.
Enjoy this brief history of my journey and I welcome your comments and questions anytime: firstname.lastname@example.org
When I was very young, my dad ran for the mayor of Albany, New York, our hometown. He lost, and in retrospect, he was definitely tilting at windmills and the chance of victory was very small. I think watching my father lose might have gotten me to think big, to generally have larger-than-life size goals and to become comfortable with the notion that what one wishes and plans for may not happen easily or quickly.
When I started Robofun® in 1998, pregnant with my now twenty-year-old son, I really didn’t comprehend what it meant to run a company. Up until that point, I had the most rewarding sixteen years of teaching children creative uses of technology. I graduated from Skidmore College in 1983 having studied painting and sculpture, won the award for the most talented painting student, and that fall became the Buckley School’s first technology teacher. I stayed at Buckley for fourteen years with the freedom to develop the technology program as I saw fit. During this time, I also obtained a Master’s in Education degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and had the amazing opportunity to collaborate at the MIT Media Lab with some of the key figures in the field of Educational Technology.
While teaching at Buckley and later at The Little Red School House, I would spend my summers painting on an island in Maine. In my world, technology and art had overlapping similarities; as an artist, I always started my painting journey with a blank canvas. As a technology teacher, the ‘blank canvas’ were my students and I was teaching them the art of programming, building robots, and exploring digital domains.
When I started teaching technology in 1983, the field of Educational Technology didn’t exist; when I arrived at Buckley, I had to make up the curricula for 3rd to 9th graders. Yes, programming was a new language, but it was a really exciting language, and it was the first time that math became interesting and engaging for me.
Dr. Seymour Papert :
My interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), especially programming, (what is now called coding) began when I was twenty, a sophomore in college and an intern at the Capital Children’s Museum in Washington DC. A man named Dr. Seymour Papert, from MIT, gave a talk on Children and Learning. Dr. Papert was a student of Jean Piaget’s and the founder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab (what later became the Media Lab). Little did I know that that first meeting would change the course of my life.
Throughout my teens, I had always worked with kids; camp counseling, being a shadow for an autistic boy, and volunteering within elementary school classrooms. I loved thinking about how we learn. It was also what Dr. Papert was talking about. He was also excited about a programming language he had developed called LOGO.
After hearing Dr. Papert’s talk, I returned to Skidmore in 1982 for my senior year of college and eager to study LOGO. Back then no one knew what I was talking about; but through a series of independent studies with one of Dr. Papert’s students, I was able to learn about technology, children and LOGO.
In 1986, by some coincidence (or a guiding hand), I literally ran into Dr. Papert in a bakery in Blue Hill, Maine. When I first saw him there, I was not sure if I should speak up. After all, I was not trained as a computer scientist and I was completely self-taught. And here I was meeting the person who went to LEGO and developed both the programming language LOGO and LEGO Robotics! I soon discovered we were kindred souls. This chance encounter led me to collaborate with Dr. Papert on teaching children and teachers.
Some people come into our lives for a short visit and have little effect. Others appear and reappear unexpectedly and change our lives forever. That’s how it was for Seymour Papert and me. For over 30 years, Seymour was my mentor, business partner, and friend. He cherished having an opportunity to work deeply with someone not from the ivory tower of MIT, but someone on the ground using his work. As an irreverent school-goer who loved to learn yet disliked the school system, his writing spoke to my soul. It helped to clarify my thoughts about how we learn, don’t learn, and how we might set up great learning environments for children.
How is it that I began a business teaching STEM before STEM existed? Seymour Papert inspired me. How did I begin teaching coding before the word coding was used by laypeople? Seymour challenged me. He didn't directly challenge me to do exactly what I did; he challenged me to follow my instinct and my yearning for a safe space for children to discover their own creativity, courage, and abilities.
When I encountered Seymour at the bakery, I had just completed my third year of teaching LOGO at The Buckley School (where I subsequently taught one of our Presidents’ sons) on the upper east side of Manhattan. There was no computer program when I arrived, so I went from a blank canvas in art school to a blank screen on a Commodore 64. I came up with really fun projects with my students that married creativity and programming.
In 1989, Seymour and I started something called “The Stonington Retreat.” This was an intensive five-day learning retreat for teachers that occurred for a week in the summer. We ran it for the next thirteen years. Seymour wanted to bring teachers to Deer Isle, Maine to reconnect with the joy of learning. He insisted that it must be at least a week long, because he wanted us to create an intensive learning experience and he felt a shorter period of time just wouldn’t work. During each session, we’d work with between ten and thirty teachers.
The weeks were amazing. Seymour was right; we needed four or five days just to allow us to calm down, reflect and immerse into deeper learning and reflection. I discovered, while watching my adult students have so much fun, that finding their own groove of learning was much more important than a traditional teaching approach that had an agenda covering material at specific times. Instead, when my adult students were ready, we’d have impromptu moments when various parts of programming were taught. This changed the dynamic from working from my agenda, to responding to the needs of the students. In this way, learning happened much more organically, individually and with deeper content.
Teachers need to get out of the way:
I have found when teaching kids or adults, that the teacher can get in the way. It is better to step back and listen to what is needed. Often it is to leave people to work, explore and reach out to me and their peers when they are ready to for input. This may sound like a trivial point, but when the learner controls more of their learning process, they are much more deeply engaged and have a much more lasting and meaningful learning experience.
I found that combining my background in painting and sculpture with LOGO, LEGO Robotics and other maker-y endeavors involving circuits, wires and motors was really challenging and really fun for me. I had no curriculum, but I had a lot of creativity and I loved LOGO. My students and I came up with projects that meshed LOGO with art; we designed New York City buildings, adding variables and allowing everyone in the class to use everyone else’s creations.
With my Kindergarteners, we created digital collages with each child contributing to a class picture. I took my students to see Alexander Calder’s Circus exhibit and we made robotic circuses. I learned that my classroom had to be a learning place for all, especially for me. I discovered that everyone didn’t need to be doing the same thing, and that having children help each other was as effective - or more effective - than me being the only teacher. My classroom became a different universe than the formal traditional environment. One of my biggest problems was getting my students to leave so they could get to their next class on time!
I left teaching children 16 years later, having developed the Technology Program at The Buckley School, The Little Red School House, and Elizabeth Irwin High School. Throughout my career I realized through some very hard lessons, that schools don’t always help children develop a love for learning. Sadly, the pendulum in schools is swinging towards test prep; I am not a big believer that tests prepare you for life.
Robofun®: Filling the gap!
In 1998 when I started Robofun®, I didn’t quite realize what I was trying to do was unusual. Robofun has taught STEM to over 20,000 children in our private studio on the Upper West side of Manhattan and in over 100 schools across New York City. I employ over 50 people who are as passionate as I am about empowering children. Our mission is to construct solutions that inspire students and teachers, and to address the widest possible range of academic standards through the use of leading-edge technologies. Robofun provides children a teaching environment that satisfies their curiosity but also allows them to learn in a way that recognizes their individuality – the end result is their love for learning and a desire to repeat it over and over again. We ignite kids’ desire to explore, solve problems and learn. We invent, build and have fun with cool technologies. Our philosophy of learning is rooted in constructivism; emphasizing a hands-on problem-solving and project-based approach to learning that challenges students to think creatively, apply concepts, and actively “construct” meaning.
Our work has been funded by the National Science Foundation as well as the MacArthur foundation. We’ve collaborated with the MIT Media Lab, NYU’s ITP, Columbia School of Engineering as well as the New York City Department of Education. We’ve written a lot of curriculum over the past 20 years. Amongst other things, we wrote the original manual for using technology in Boys and Girls Clubs of America. We wrote the first manual for the YWCA’s Techgyrls program. The original user’s manual for Scratch, the language developed at MIT a few generations after LOGO, was written by me and my staff.
In a world where children spend excessive amounts of time glued to digital devices and less time on interpersonal relationships, now more than ever we have to do our part to teach children to think creatively, problem solve, deal with frustration, collaborate with other children and learn to use new technologies that don’t exist today. This is what I saw twenty years ago, and this continues to be Robofun’s mission. We teach using technologies in robotics, coding and stop motion animation. We also train teachers. We are also introducing Minecraft and circuitry classes this summer. Our curriculums have been used by thousands of children. I view using technology platforms as somewhat of a Trojan Horse: we are getting results by having kids learn to love learning.
We only hire teachers that love children. They must be present, connected, and excited by what they are teaching. They are able to take a simple project, such as making a robotic “jack in the box”, and see a moment to turn this into a class-wide Rube Goldberg sculpture. Our teachers (we call them mentors) are artists, former Department of Education DOE teachers, camp counselors and swim instructors, computer programmers, engineers and musicians. They understand that although they are trained on our curriculums, they must do a lot of improvising, a lot of listening and must be able to respond to a moment-by-moment connection with each child. Above all, what unites them is their love for working with children.
What is most important to me, and it is expressed through and by my team, is for kids to have a great experience. We’re used to (and expect) that each child comes with his or her own strengths and his or her need to feel that we recognize how he or she learns. We focus on teaching kindness by being kind. We focus on collaboration by working on group projects. We explore what it means to solve a hard problem that can’t just be done in two minutes. We shower kids with positive reinforcement so that we ensure that they always feel safe emotionally, intellectually and physically.
When my own son was eleven, I was forced to pull him out of school, as I found my brilliant, dyslexic son’s needs were not being met in school. I called myself the reluctant homeschooler. This began a deep dive into homeschooling as well as into making sure that every class we run at Robofun is done in a thoughtful, well-considered way that approaches learning from many different points of entry and supports many different types of learning.
Flash forward to the present. My son, the homeschooler, just successfully finished his first year of college! The other day, the doorbell rang, and a twelve-year-old came into the apartment, having just walked our Golden Retriever. He proceeded to sit down and talk to me about why he loved Minecraft and how he thought we should incorporate more Minecraft classes into our program. I agreed with him and invited him to consult with my staff as we develop the program. When he left, my son said, “Mom, you just keep collecting kids.”
He was right!
“I love what we do and I am determined to continue my mission to ensure that we show children the rewarding side of learning, and inspire them to never stop pursuing new frontiers.”
Laura Hart —
Founder & CEO
Laura has worked with teachers, students and technology for over thirty-five years. An early interest in LOGO programming led Laura to the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she collaborated on projects with the MIT Media Laboratory and mathematician and educator Dr. Seymour Papert, the founder of LOGO programming and one of the world’s foremost experts on instructional technologies. Prior to founding Robofun, Laura directed the Computer Department at The Buckley School in Manhattan for fourteen years and was Director of the Technology Program at the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School for two years. Laura was named as one of the Enterprising Women of the Year in both 2006 and 2008 by Enterprising Women magazine. Laura has a bachelor of Science in Studio Arts from Skidmore College and a Masters in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Laura is thrilled to be celebrating the 20th anniversary of starting the company!
Laura is a bit of a child whisperer. She absolutely loves the energy children and has a hand in every curriculum and class to make sure each student’s needs are met and that they leave Robofun as a more confident and eager learner. She is a passionate environmentalist and shares her worm composting along with other science projects with our Robofun students.