Options for building your own mini-computer abound. There are more coding tutorials than even the most dedicated student would know what to do with. What’s an ambitious student to do? Where does a teacher even start? How can an edtech businessperson know which tools will be successful
Venture capitalists are betting that the winning horse in the race includes Minecraft, thanks to Piper, a kit that teaches students to assemble their own computer, start playing Minecraft and, in doing so, learn to code. The company behind it has raised $2.1 million in seed funding from Princeton University, Reach Capital, 500 Startups, FoundersXFund, Jaan Tallinn (co-founder of Skype) and Jay Silver (the founder of Makey Makey).
The San Francisco-based company, started in 2014, plans to use the funding to launch PiperEDU, a version of Piper geared towards K-12 classrooms. Each regular Piper kit comes with a Raspberry Pi 3 microcomputer, an LCD display, a powerbank, a speaker and a wooden case that forms the computer’s chassis. The education-friendly version, named Piper Block, also comes with extra parts to ensure that classroom mishaps don’t disable an entire kit. Piper has also been hiring curriculum developers to create professional development and activities that support the objectives of the Next Generation Science Standards. These, too, will come with the new product.
PiperEDU also comes at a discount. Whereas a normal Piper kit costs $300, PiperEDU will cost $250 when a school buys four units. If that price is too steep, teachers have the option to rent Piper kits on a monthly basis—two for $100 per month—and apply the money paid in rental fees to an eventual purchase.
The company has experienced rapid growth in the past 18 months. After graduating from the co.lab edugaming accelerator at the end of 2014, Piper launched a successful Kickstarter and raised $280,000 by April of 2015, all while developing the first version of the kit. It sold 1300 units during the Kickstarter and 1700 more during the remainder of 2015. Piper co-founder Mark Pavlyukovskyy predicts Piper will ship between 10,000 and 15,000 total kits in 2016, especially with Christmas having boosted sales last year
Piper began with Pavlyukovskyy’s own educational endeavors and misadventures. While implementing a gamified health curricula in Ghana in 2012, he became sick with what doctors guessed was cerebral malaria and evacuated to England. While in a fever dream, he evaluated his life and decided he could have a bigger impact as a programmer than as a public health advocate. So when he was lucky enough to recover, he taught himself programming.
The next obvious step, to Pavlyukovskyy, was to give this opportunity to children because, he thought, “If I can teach myself, so can other people!” He tested the idea in India, Ghana and Kenya using the newly in vogue Raspberry Pi microcontroller, but the price point was too high for developing communities. “Besides, I was just shipping parts,” he said.
He turned his attention to the US, but crashed into another obstacle: kids wanted to play Minecraft more than they wanted to assemble a computer or learn to code. The creators of Raspberry Pi were already ahead of him: They had released Minecraft Pi, a unique Minecraft server for the Raspberry Pi, at the tail end of 2012. He had everything he needed, and thus was born Piper.