Wonder Workshop wants robots in the classroom

Are children's robots a fad or a fantastic tool for STEM education?

Wonder Workshop, creator of the popular Dash & Dot programmable robot system for kids, released a new app this week called Wonder. With the app, the company aims to introduce a robotics coding language for kids that "turns computer science into every day child's play."

The app release comes on the heels of an announcement in May that Wonder Workshop raised $6.9 million from new investor WI Harper Group and several existing investors, including Madrona Venture Group and Maven Ventures. That investment brought total funding to around $16M, and Wonder Workshop said it would use the cash to continue expanding into new markets.

When it comes to educational toys, schools present a strategically important early market for enterprising companies. (READ: Bots for Tots: Five robots that help kids learn.) Wonder Workshop and brands like Sphero, which makes a programmable robot ball, are seeking to create a new product category. In order to survive and build exposure, it's vital that they bring credibility to claims that their robots provide significant educational benefits. Wonder Workshop has been particularly successful positioning Dash & Dot as a tool for early STEM education, a focal point in recent conversations about curriculum development and national competitiveness. Once you have the schools, the thinking goes, it's much easier to get the parents.

"Building programs in partnership with educators from around the world has always been part of our mission," co-founder and CEO Vikas Gupta said in a statement. "Seeing the lesson plans and guides developed, the creativity of the children, and the resulting impact Dash & Dot have made in classrooms is incredibly exciting."

Wonder Workshop launched Dash & Dot in December 2014 and boasted $3.5M in sales in its first month. Based in San Mateo, CA, the company was founded in 2012 by Vikas Gupta, Saurabh Gupta, and Mikal Greaves, inventors, designers, programmers, and parents with a mission to make coding accessible for children. Dash and Dot have appeared at the White House and are now used in about 600 elementary school classrooms across the country.

That's a small drop in a very large bucket -- there are 88,565 elementary schools nationwide and they account for hundreds of thousands of classrooms, according to the Center for Education Reform -- but the willingness of a notable number of teachers to incorporate robotics into their curriculum is an important mark of viability and a sign that Wonder Workshop and other early entrants in children's robotics may be at the vanguard of a product category primed for rapid growth. That's the enviable position that iRobot found itself in when it launched the Roomba.

To aid penetration into schools, the company recently launched a Teacher's Portal, which offers educators curriculum-aligned lesson plans to use in the classroom. Like Sphero, the Dash & Dot system is available in packaged educator kits. Wonder Workshop will also release Dot -- the brain of the robot -- as a standalone product.

The Wonder app, which Wonder Workshop hopes will continue to drive consumer sales of Dash & Dot, features an interface designed for kids that combines unstructured play with in-app challenges built around simple programming. Using picture-based icons, kids can make playful programs of their own. The magic moment is when Dash & Dot execute those programs. The big idea is that kids will learn early on that coding is a powerful skill with real-world applications, obviating one of the most common complaints kids have about math and science education.