Bringing Tech and Play to Classrooms Globally

Tufts experts collaborate on an initiative to further STEAM education capacity in Brazilian, Kenyan, and Rwandan schools

Two Nepali boys working on an engineering projects at a table. Tufts experts are collaborating on an initiative to further STEAM education capacity in Brazilian, Kenyan, and Rwandan schools

Across the globe, young people live in a changing world where success is increasingly dependent on facility in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). But not all school systems have access to STEM training and resources, and not just in the U.S., but around the world.

Now a team of Tufts researchers is working to change that with a new project, the LEGO Foundation Tech and Play initiative, which will partner with organizations in Brazil, Kenya, and Rwanda to co-develop tools and training that can prepare students to be the next generation of changemakers. That means thinking like scientists and engineers: fostering innovation, taking risks, learning from failure, and trying again. It also means encouraging play. 

“Play and engineering look really similar in some ways,” said Merredith Portsmore, E98, A98, G99, EG10, director of the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO) at the School of Engineering, and a research associate professor. “Play is iterative, it’s meaningful, it’s socially engaged.”

Funded by a $1 million grant from the LEGO Foundation, the team is focused on fostering STEAM (that’s STEM plus the arts) education capacity over the next two years. The project has three primary goals: developing communities that support play in engineering, providing tools and research on how students learn, and supplying teacher professional development.

Faculty and staff at Tufts CEEO, one of the first centers in the U.S. dedicated to engineering education, have long experience in innovative educational initiatives and in working with educators from across the globe.

While researchers from Tufts CEEO and the Department of Mechanical Engineering focus on developing hardware and physical materials, faculty and graduate students from the Department of Education are taking the lead on understanding student thinking, and Tufts CEEO is using its expertise in online teacher training to develop teacher education programs.

The Tech and Play initiative connects them with three other U.S. organizations: the Scratch Foundation, the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT Media Lab, which developed the Scratch programming language for children, and the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium, a San Francisco museum of science, technology, and arts.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Different countries and education systems have different needs and levels of technical resources. Chris Rogers, principal investigator of the grant and the John R. Beaver Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is working with Research Associate Professor Ethan Danahy, E00, EG02, EG07, of Tufts CEEO to develop hardware and physical materials that could be used in classrooms.

As part of the Tech and Play initiative, some classrooms will incorporate robotics, said Rogers. “Right now we are figuring out what sort of low-cost toolset we can develop that can teach robotics without a computer, and we have cool prototypes that look at programming your robot by training—artificial intelligence—instead of coding,” he said.

The U.S.-based teams are working with organizations in Brazil, Kenya, and Rwanda, which will implement the programs. Experienced non-governmental organizations in each country are sharing their knowledge of local context, cultural values, and needs in the education space, and will ultimately implement the programs developed.

Assistant Professor Brian Gravel, E01, EG04, AG11, of the Department of Education is drawing on previous work to focus the efforts in culturally sustaining ways. He has a longstanding relationship with Malden Public Schools, where his group has supported the creation of maker spaces, courses focused on creativity, play, and engineering, and professional development experiences.

“The work in Malden was built on decolonizing frames,” said Gravel. “We have worked hard to make sure that ‘making’ was not a colonizing force in schools. We build from those experiences, exploring the vast, diverse, and personal experiences and practices with making that everyone brings to this shared work, and we are excited to continue learning with and alongside partners in new places.”

Tufts Expertise in a Global Context

The Tufts researchers look forward to collaborating with and learning from their colleagues on the Tech and Play initiative. “This is a great opportunity for us to learn from the partner countries, and to look for different ways the content can be taken up by teachers in classrooms,” Rogers said.

The team will leverage Gravel’s and Tufts CEEO’s studies of K-12 education in the Boston area as well as the experience of nonprofit Karkhana to adapt approaches for different contexts with different resources. Karkhana is an education company and makerspace based in Nepal. It was co-founded by Dipeshwor Shrestha, a PhD candidate in education at Tufts who is now working on the Tech and Play initiative.

“Karkhana has been helping us learn how to make connections and learn about local contexts,” said Portsmore. “They’re sharing work they’ve done and what the obstacles and roadblocks were. The goal is to co-design teaching and learning tools with us.”

Collaboration is the key to it all. “When students and teachers learn together in school, working on issues or ideas they care about, the learning potential is tremendous,” said Gravel. “Together with teachers and students in Rwanda, Brazil, Kenya, and Nepal, we hope to deepen the ways we think about how learning through play and making can enhance learning experiences in schools.”

Lynne Powers can be reached at

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