“60 Fun Activities Without Chemicals.” As a tagline for a kid’s chemistry set, these words would just be another packaging facepalm if they didn’t symbolize something deeper about the state of scientific and technical education.
Chemistry, as much as computing, relies on creative problem solving, and when students as a whole aren’t given a chance to fail and find their own solutions, it suggests bigger answers may elude society down the line. Is it possible to encourage children to unplug their video games, stop staring at the screen, and begin building?
According to London-based startup Technology Will Save Us (TWSU), you can. You just need to let them create their own console. Predicated on the idea that kids will be more animated by building hardware rather than passively accepting software, the three-year-old startup behind a series of educational electronics kits has grown from a “haberdashery for technology,” organizing a series of workshops, into a symbol of how design-focused, hands-on technology can engage students.
The company’s DIY Gamer Kit—an $80 box of parts, including an Arduino open-source microcontroller—can be assembled into a handheld computer running Breakout, Pac-Man, and any program a curious player might devise and program, turning a toy into a tool.
The beauty of the company’s kits—a range of project possibilities from DIY speakers to a solar-powered, thirsty-plant moisture sensor (all assembled at its East London factory)—isn’t just the colorful, evocative packaging that communicates to kids “tear me open and have fun” (one of the company’s key tests with any new design). It’s the way soldering, wiring, and programming takes them beyond passive consumerism and into active tinkering and 21st-century skills sets.
“It opens up a Pandora’s Box of potential,” says co-founder Daniel Hirschmann. “You’re not just doing regular design, but you’re doing user experience and user input design. You actually have an opinion about how great user experience works, and understand a narrative.”
Hirschmann conceived TWSU with his wife Bethany Koby in 2011 in a manner similar to many couples-turned-corporate founders—they turned their complaints into a business model. Koby, an international branding expert for Wolff Olins, had a vision for a better business that could do well and make a profit. Hirschmann, a professor and artist engaged in physical computing, was frustrated with the way standard tech and engineering education was more about what you can’t do.
The husband-and-wife duo began with a sample kit in 2011 and now offer more than a dozens kits, as well as education sets for classrooms (and all the requisite wire strippers and safety goggles).
TWSU uses a refined, design-led process that begins with finding products and projects that address everyday needs, and therefore fit more easily into someone’s life and appeal to those without a tech background.
The team then prototypes, building a MVK (minimum viable kit) to workshop, and if it proves successful, designs manuals and packaging that fit into the bigger brand. Once boxed in brown cardboard, the kits now come in excitable and engaging full-color packaging. The DIY Gamer Kit was even added to MoMA’s permanent collection last fall.
The TWSU team views the ubiquity of technology and design and the problem-solving skills required to become engaged in these fields not only as something relevant to everyone (it claims the kits are made for those ages 4 to 104), but also as something that’s sorely lacking into today’s school curricula. (Britain made news last fall when it became the first G8 country to introduce coding into its national lesson plan.)
According to Walter Bender, the founder of the One Laptop per Child Initiative and Sugar Labs learning software, hands-on education and empowerment was a foundation of early computer education. It was pushed by pioneers such as Cynthia Solomon and Seymour Papert who helped create the LOGO programming language for kids in the late ’60s (remember the turtle cursor?). In an era of commercialization of educational computing, kids work with opaque tools and black boxes and aren’t allowed or encouraged to look inside and see how it works.
“Kids are using the computer as apps, not as a tool,” Bender says. “When it’s a tool, when they use it as a tool for problem solving, that’s the power. They’re learning. It’s something you do; it’s activity.”
Bender says that every study looking at technology learning has shown that innovation comes from informal settings—the outside breaking in. It’s exactly what TWSU is counting on, says Hirschmann, who envisions kids taking TWSU kits to class and inspiring teachers to try and find out who made that cool toy.
As the company continues to refine existing products and expand its line—the current project is a new line of programming-focused kits aimed at kids 7 to 11 years of age—TWSU aims to find better ways to engage mechanical sensibilities, logic, and creativity. Lessons that “aren’t just about the geekery,” Hirschmann says, “but are about making something with your hands.
“We want to create things that make the learning journey awesome,” he says. “The response should be, ‘How could you not play with these things; they’re so freaking cool!’”