Programming app Nepo Missions – Digital


Rosa is the name of the little white robot that was sent from Earth to Mars and is now supposed to explore the red planet. But first you have to find out where exactly Rosa ended up, then she has to complete a driver training course and finally Rosa can turn around on Mars and maybe even find traces of life? On her research mission, Rosa supports her sister Roberta, who is still on Earth, and the scientist Dalia. They give Rosa tips if, for example, she gets stuck while walking around boulders or if the measurement with the infrared spectrometer does not work immediately.

Rosa is the protagonist of the educational game “Nepo Missions”. With it, children and young people from the age of ten can playfully program a virtual Mars rover. The scenario is based on the real research mission “ExoMars 2022” of the European space agency ESA and its Mars exploration robot “Rosalind Franklin”. And who, especially in times of distance teaching and contact restrictions, doesn’t want to travel to a world that has not yet been explored and try out a future scientist?

The app, which was developed with the games company Gentle Trolls, can be downloaded free of charge from the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store. In-app purchases, which often unintentionally lead to high costs for parents, are not possible in the app.

Nepo Missions came up with the creators of “Roberta”. Roberta is an initiative of the Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems (IAIS) that has been trying to attract children and young people to technology and natural sciences for 18 years. Hundreds of teachers are trained every year to pass on their knowledge.

An essential part of the initiative is the “Open Roberta Lab” platform, which has existed since 2016 and which people around the world can use to learn programming. The platform is available in 20 languages. In the year 2020 alone, there were three million hits on the site. The numbers increased threefold compared to the previous year. The practical thing about the programming platform: The program is open source, cloud-based and free of charge. There is no software to buy or install. And anyone who wants to program “real” robots with Nepo can use a wide variety of hardware. It ranges from the inexpensive Calliope Mini and the BBC Microbit to the more expensive robots from Lego Mindstorms.

Thorsten Leimbach, Head of Smart Coding and Learning at Fraunhofer IAIS says: “Our goal is to reach all children in Germany. Every child should have the opportunity to learn to program.” Children should experience that robotics and programming are not reserved for nerds. It’s fun, creative, and both girls and boys can learn.

While Open Roberta is primarily aimed at teachers and, apart from a few tutorials, the lab is not suitable for self-study, the educational game Nepo Missions now takes a different route. It is aimed directly at children and young people. It should show that there are exciting challenges that software developers master every day.

“There are already some coding apps, but they often play in a fantasy world,” says Leimbach. They are often detached from the goal, but girls in particular want to know for which applications the tasks are actually useful. And that becomes clear at Nepo Missions. Rosa is a virtual replica of the rover that will fly to Mars in 2022. The sensors are there and so are the tasks that he has to fulfill on his exploration mission.

The name of the new app refers to the programming language Nepo, which was developed by the IAIS. Nepo is similar to the graphic programming language Scratch developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Using drag and drop, blocks with commands are put together, which are then executed by real or virtual robots. Nepo thus resembles “adult” text-based programming languages ​​such as Java and Python in the sequential structure. So anyone who wants to work in a scientific-technical profession or study computer science can try it out and learn and then already understand the basic programming principles.

And the people behind Roberta also want to deal with future topics in computer science. “The lab is being expanded to include artificial intelligence and, as already indicated in the case of Nepo Missions, it should be possible to program language assistance systems,” says Leimbach. Then children could learn, for example, how to tell the light switch what to do.

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