first_imgRichard Feynman, the late nuclear physicist and Nobel Laureate, once said that the universe doesn’t make sense except through the lens of mathematics. As our world grows more technologically dependent, the same thinking could extend to encompass understanding circuits and code.Education is nice and all, but there are lot of barriers to learning about electronics. After all, computers, quite famously, don’t exactly think like we do. And it’s hard even for many adults to wrap their head around the obtuse idiosyncrasies of computing.That’s where the folks at Piper hope to step in. By teaching children early, they want to help introduce kids to the weird world of the digital when their brains are the most plastic and able to take in new knowledge. And the team thinks that by pegging computer science to one of the most popular games in the world — Minecraft — it might be able to take some major steps towards educating kids.Mark Pavlyukovskyy, Piper’s project lead, believes that using something children already know and are familiar with can help acclimate them to circuitry and tech. With that in mind, he launched a very successful Kickstarter last year, raising almost six times their original $50,000. Now the group’s started shipping out their “Piper toolbox,” a totally open-source kit that you assemble yourself.There are no instructions, so you’ll have to fashion the case together with an included screw-driver and a bit of time, but from there you can jump into Minecraft and follow Piper’s customized levels. They’re designed around a loose story about a cheese-meteor that threatens Earth. You, playing as the long-abandoned PiperBot, must restart yourself and assemble the tools you need to save the day. It’s a bit corny, sure, but it serves its purpose well, providing a rationale and sense of investment in connecting bits of hardware together. And that hardware manages quite a bit.Between the latest Raspberry Pi, a small LCD monitor, some bread boards and sensors, a speaker, battery bank, miniature mouse, cables and buttons, plus the wooden case — you get quite a bit of gear. It’s pricey — running $300 — but it comes with lots of options for schools, who will likely the get the most out of the kit.Set-up is simple, again requiring just a single illustrated sheet to help you get started — though I’ll admit I had a tougher time than I’d like to admit, and some of the team’s documentation isn’t quite up to date. Piper is using the latest Raspberry Pi — a tiny computer that can pack a stunning amount of horsepower. That means that the Pi the Piper group uses also has a built-in Wi-Fi antenna, but my documentation suggested I needed an additional dongle.It stopped my build for about 30 minutes as I shuffled through the kit looking for the add-on. The initial button connections are similarly confusing and it took a bit of fiddling with those to get the system working. Adult supervision, at least for the initial build, is definitely suggested, and while the goal of ditching traditional manuals is noble, I couldn’t find the standard guide to help with the set-up. I’m not sure if it was a simple oversight, but after tearing through my kit to find the Wi-Fi dongle, I know I, for whatever reason didn’t receive one. So your mileage may vary.Once I got that all sorted, I booted up the machine and jumped… right into Minecraft. With a quick video and some on-screen tutorials, I was on my way to connecting all manner of wires and sensors. And the stuff I built was really cool. You start with the controller so that you can play and run the game, before adding all kinds of sensors and motion detectors. These custom levels are loaded with secrets that you can only find with the help of all the included tech, and that’s… really freaking cool. I get that I’m an adult and that I’m way above the target age for this, but… well I remember this Star Wars Lego kit I got as a kid. It had a programmable (I’m talking really simple here, this was the 90s) R2D2 that could move around in basic patterns.That kick started my love of electronics, tech, and robots. It was one of the most formative experiences of my life. From there I started building my own computers, then playing games on my custom PC, and ultimately writing about them.If I’d had this as a child? I don’t even know where I could or would have ended up. Tying learning to Minecraft, a game that’s already insanely popular with kids is, quite frankly, genius. Particularly given that it’s such a natural fit. Minecraft is all about building and modifying what you have to learn and expand. Piper’s mission and execution is stellar, and I hope that schools can buy or rent these units en masse to help teach valuable skills to children.It’s common for adults to flub products aimed at children. It’s hard for most to remember exactly what those formative years were like, and how hard it can be to learn something totally new. Most of us take our years of experience for granted and don’t do well when we try to empathize with kids. But Piper seems to have really nailed it.For the Kickstarter, the group worked with hundreds of kids to make sure they got their system right. And it’s paid off. While many of those reading this probably won’t be looking to buy kits like these for yourselves, I’d encourage you to talk to local schools, get involved — whether you have kids of your own or not. This is a tech product that has a lot of potential for good, and I for one would love to see it fulfill its potential.last_img

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