Plenty of games and apps teach kids to code. But educators and toymakers are betting that teaching computer science isn’t about coding at all.
“Computers have gotten so user-friendly that modern people, maybe not just kids, expect the computer to come to us,” Gene Luen Yang, a graphic novelist and computer science teacher, told EdSurge earlier this year. “But if you want to get into the nitty gritty of how to create new technology, you need to understand how the computer works natively.”
The proliferation of devices has made technology a ubiquitous presence in children’s lives. But that does not mean they understand how anything works. Enter computer hardware toys, which hopefully build kids’ understanding of how electronics function.
The creators of hardware toys believe that playing will endear technology to kids and inspire their academic interest. Kano, a build-it-yourself computer kit, spells out the ideal progression in its company tagline: “Make a computer, learn what's inside, play with code. Spark a lifelong passion for computing and the arts.”
There’s a market for toys like these. In the most recent available data from 2013, Arduino had sold 300,000 units official units, with 700,000 more unofficial imitation units in circulation. Arduino makes a microcontroller that forms the basis of do-it-yourself digital devices.
Some tools are even free: in July, the BBC released the BBC micro:bit, a palm-sized codeable computer, which will be distributed free to every UK student in year seven, usually students age 11 to 13. The hope is to engage students with the new UK coding curriculum.
What are they all for?
Alex Klein, creator and CEO of Kano, the computer kit mentioned above, believes that hardware toys challenge kids more than coding even as they make it easier to learn the basics of computers. When using Kano, students are tasked with building a computer from a box that contains a Raspberry Pi processor, a keyboard, a memory card and a speaker. Parents provide their own monitors. Coding without understanding computers, Klein posits, is destined to fail.
“If you don’t understand the basic principles, the Charles Babbage and Lady Ada Lovelace principles, then you’re building your house on sand,” Klein said. “Get your hands dirty, plug in the tools, see the magic happen right in front of you. You’ll have demystified something from your day to day life.” (Charles Babbage is considered the father of the computer, and Lady Ada Lovelace is considered the first computer programmer.)
Like Klein, BlinkBlink founder Nicole Messier believes that toys provide an entryway into coding for kids that’s less fearsome than simply saying, “Here’s a computer. Go code.” BlinkBlink is an invention kit that debuted this year and focuses on activities that traditionally appeal to young girls. For example, kids can sew circuits. She aims to teach girls computational thinking through actions they're accustomed to.
“The kits teach the skills used in coding: debugging, problem solving, critical thinking, but in a physical manner,” Messier said. “It makes it easier for kids to understand and embeds circuitry into their playtime. Kits introduce them to creating with technology, which is so much less intimidating than coding.”
Jay Silver of Makey Makey thinks hardware toys are more than just a pathway to coding. He believes that the real goal of hardware toys is to inspire creative confidence—the belief that anyone can create something of value, even if it starts as something small. Makey Makey turns everyday objects into computer keyboards and mice via a circuit board and alligator clips. “A lot of people think of creativity, and they think of cool people with cool clothes.” Silver said. “It's not that complicated. If you can redecorate your bedroom or rearrange your keyboard, you can redecorate the world.”
Like kids, the creators of these toys share a wide-eyed imagination for their potential. LittleBits sells simple circuit building blocks, and David Sharp, a littleBits product designer said of his toy, “Electronics are really the building block of our generation...When you begin to understand how the world around you works, then you can begin to change them and improve them and fix them.”
The Maker Movement has had a large influence on toys. Unsurprisingly so: the Maker Faire, the largest gathering of self-described makers, bills itself as “the greatest show and tell on earth,” an ode to common early childhood demonstrations. Kano is developing a social network similar to GitHub, calling it Kano World, and the network’s goal is to create a mainstream Maker Movement for kids. Makey Makey began at a Maker Faire: Silver attended the 2008 Maker Faire in Austin with Makey Makey vaguely in his mind, and a colleague proposed they start selling it.
Just as the Maker Movement seeks to bring invention to everyone, these toymakers likewise seek to democratize computer hardware. Learning about electronics can be difficult and expensive, despite their ubiquity. Kano began with a challenge from the CEO's cousin: “A computer I can build myself that’s as simple and as fun as Lego so no one has to teach it to me.”
Klein, when advocating for more computer science education more broadly, cited the world’s 8.2 billion connected devices. He contrasted that growing number with the existence of only 50 million coders worldwide.
"If we don’t close that gap, we’ll have a generation of kids who are really good at making flashy apps onscreen, building off of other people’s stuff, but we won’t have people who can reimagine the foundation of computing.”
All Fun and Games?
Toys are gender-segregated. Coding and hardware toys are no exception, according BlinkBlink founder Nicole Messier. Many kits market themselves as universal, but Messier says that’s hardly ever true. To her, "universal" is just an unacknowledged perspective: “On so many toys, everything from the aesthetics to the activities is designed for boys. It would be awesome to live in a world without gender disparities, but most of the tech toys out there are designed for boys, though they never say they are. That's why people react negatively to something designed for girls.”
By contrast, when asked if Makey Makey had any serious detractors, Jay Silver said, “There’s generally a lot of goodwill for this sort of thing.”
According to the College Board, AP Computer Science A was the fastest growing AP course in the last 5 years, growing by 25 percent this year alone. College Board also reported that the number of female students taking the exam grew by 37 percent over 2014. Not all is well, though: Montana and Wyoming had no female students take the 2014 AP computer science exam, and 12 states had no black students participate in the exam.
Messier's goal is that, by playing with technology, young girls will imagine themselves as future engineers.
“If we can get more girls creating at a young age, we’ll see more girls entering STEM fields,” she said.
Hardware toys also allow kids to modify technology for their own needs. Vi, a device that turns music into tactile sensation, uses littleBits to allow hearing-impaired children to play the music.
These aren’t just toys for hobbyists or for Maker communities. Schools, desperate for STEM resources, are adopting them in droves. Many are open source, which makes for easy modification by teachers. Pearson has struck up a partnership with Kano: 200 classrooms across 20 countries now use the tool, with the biggest usage concentrated in the US and UK. A school in Alpharetta, Georgia has redesigned its entire fifth grade curriculum to incorporate Kano-based activities. A thousand girls participated in the afterschool workshops that gave birth to BlinkBlink. Makey Makey sold roughly 25,000 kits to schools this year, though the company has never focused on marketing to that sector.
Silver said, “I love nothing more than to be surprised." He was talking not only about the uses adult makers kept inventing for his product but also schools' unexpected and widespread adoption of Makey Makey.
Correction, December 7, 2015: An earlier version of this article said that Makey Makey had not developed lesson plans and that Kano was used in 200 classrooms in the UK.