As an engineer and dad, I’m always seeking new ways to excite my kids with the things that excite me: computers, robots, design, art. But some things, like electronics, are pretty damn hard to learn. The math is way over a six-year old’s head, chips and wires are fussy, and when things don’t work, it’s not at all obvious why.
Sure, my kids see me futzing around with LED strips and Arduinos and cursing at my cheap multimeter. But what can they do themselves? My kids dream big (“build a robotic dino!”) but the moment I start explaining a potentiometer, their eyes glaze over. I bought a deluxe SnapCircuits kit one holiday with 800 projects. These easy-to-use parts ought to inspire them as much as their mountains of Lego lying everywhere, right? Nope. SnapCircuit’s lackluster project list includes such snoozers as Create your own light-activated alarm and Simulate an ambulance siren. The only project that got any repeat play fires a propeller into the air (boys love things that shoot!) What’s worse, if they accidentally connect something in reverse, things just don’t work for no apparent reason. The rare “SnapCircuits play session”, when it happens, goes like this:
- skip ahead to recipe #573 (super advanced) because it’s more interesting than recipes #1…#572.
- read the recipe vaguely, then skip or misread key steps because you’re rushing to build something that sounds cool
- scream for help from Dad because… NOTHING WORKS.
A number of companies have recently waxed inventive around this problem. LittleBits, SparkFun, Kano, even Adafruit with Circuit Playground are all trying to crack it. With each entry, I wonder… will my kids stick with it? And if they do, can I stay out of the room?
When I met Mark Pavlyukovskyy last year, I was intrigued by his approach. “Kids adore Minecraft,” Mark told me, “so why not use Minecraft to teach electronics?” With his prototype product, Piper, kids would build real electronics projects tied directly to the Minecraft world. I thought it had potential.
This past weekend, my family finally received our first official Piper. It’s come a long way from Mark’s prototype. The packaging is beautifully designed, with a Scanimation of moving gears moving. Inside is a giant blueprint and many parts for building “the box”. And there are no written instructions.
Instantly, the Scanimation and the box was ripped from my hands. For the next three hours my young builders (12, 10 and 6 years old) snapped together laser-cut wood pieces, and tightened screws into nuts. They undid and redid, cooperated and often clashed, but ultimately assembled a beautiful case which included a built-in screen, Raspberry Pi, mouse, battery, and speaker. (For a full walkthrough of the building process, click here or see these classroom photos. Some kids may need some parental assistance, but mine did not).
Great job, I thought!
…but what are the odds that this thing will actually boot up, given how rough on toys these boys are?
Lo and behold! as they plugged in the last cord, PiperAnimation roared to life, beckoning them on a cartoony journey to stop the “cheese asteroid”.
I’ve finally become unnecessary! Because, hell, what parent has ever been asked to help with Minecraft?
Amusingly, however, the young builders did ask me one thing: “where’s the ASDF keys?” In everyday Minecraft play, you navigate around the Minecraft world with your keyboard. Although Piper includes a mouse, there is no included keyboard. Stumped, I scratched my head stupidly for a moment; this was more than enough time for my kids to launch the first Piper mission and wire up “ASDF keys” out of buttons dropped on the included breadboard. Ingenious — let the Dad obviation continue!
What’s magical here is that in the Minecraft world, you actually see a virtual Raspberry Pi board and jumper cables attached to virtual buttons on a virtual breadboard. As you wire up the real buttons and wires, you see “current flow” going through the Minecraft representations. Disconnect a wire? The Minecraft current stops flowing. Cries of “Dad, it’s dead!” are silenced: Piper doesn’t leave a kid in the dark. Certain principles espoused by Bret Victor in Learnable Programming are at play here: make it possible to “see” what’s happening, and understand the state of the system at any time.
The Minecraft world is joined to the physical in imaginative ways in just the first couple of missions. A physical switch can open a Minecraft door, or send a Minecraft elevator up and down. An LED can represent a “torch” that lights up an underground chamber.
Unlike with other kits, Piper users are really building with the same finicky e-parts I goof around with. When a jumper wire broke off in the breadboard, they just had to deal with it. When the speaker stopped speaking, I just said “see what you can do, Scotty.” Since they built everything, they’re happy to debug it themselves, and since all parts are off the shelf it’s relatively easy to replace them. While I think the missions are a bit hokey, my kids are enjoying them. When they chew through the included missions, more can be downloaded with the built-in wifi dongle.
But is what they really want just to play Minecraft, while the electronics is simply an obstacle? Are they really learning, or are they just learning to follow a recipe?
“Any sufficiently advanced learning will be indistinguishable from play.” — Scott Snibbe
I mentioned early on to Mark and his team that I believe the reason for Lego’s enduring popularity is : there’s no failure mode. No failure means incredible flow. If you can stick pieces together, you can always build something.
But engineering — especially electrical — is full of failure modes. And failure can disrupt the flow of play, unless you have the tools to solve the FAIL. Piper is the first electronics kit that begins to offer such tools. By closing the loop with a virtual world that senses just how the electronics are assembled, Piper makes it possible to play with circuits as never before. When turning a knob with a potentiometer decreases line resistance, Piper can show more water flowing down a Minecraft river as a virtual gate swivels open. Even my six-year-old will grasp the principles underlying a flickering LED light, especially if he’s motivated to ward off a creeper with his LED “torch”. In future, I expect Piper will even detect which parts of your circuit are “backwards” and show you, in the Minecraft world, how the physical electrons are “blocked” or flowing the “wrong way”.
Now, not every kid is a future full-time engineer. Some kids would much rather play Minecraft than build Minecraft, just like some would much rather play with a BB-8 toy than try to make one. But I’m convinced that every “Piper kid” will learn basic electronics principles, and every “Piper builder kid” will construct unimaginably exciting things, in both the virtual and the real worlds.
Minecraft itself is insanely popular in part because you can play games sometimes, and be creative other times. More importantly, you can share your playtime and your creations with the world. When Piper users start sharing new missions and new electronics challenges with others, kids will begin teaching other kids how potentiometers work — the final nail in the coffin for “Professor Dad.”
And that suits me just fine. Because hey, what more could a Dad ask for, if not quality alone time with… my new stepper motor kit from the big kids at Adafruit.com?!