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A littleBit of Electronic Literacy

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Ayah Bdeir

Guest Post by Ayah Bdeir, founder and CEO of littleBits, an award-winning open source library of electronic modules that magnetically snap together to allow users to create simple circuits and innovative projects.

Probably one of the most annoying things I hear adults say is, “I’m not really a technology kind of person.” Unfortunately, I hear it pretty often, and to me, in 2013, it sounds like “I’m not really a reading and writing kind of person.” I don’t ever remember hearing a kid say, “I’m not really a technology kind of person.” And even more than that, I’m not sure how someone who owns an iPhone with more than 30 apps, has all their data in the cloud, spends more than 10 hours a day on a computer and expects wifi on a plane is “not really a technology kind of person.” Our lives are completely controlled by the technologies and devices around us, and somehow we are able to take kids that are afraid of nothing and turn them into technophobes.

Over the past several years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this problem: how to make technology — and electronics, in particular — feel less “like magic” that we don’t comprehend and yet more “magical.” A couple of the key things I consider to be at the source of the solution:

-       Understanding the world around us

-       Learning the fundamentals of programming

-       Innovating at the intersections

Two years ago I started a company called littleBits. We make a library of electronic modules that snap together with magnets. Each brick is a self contained, pre-assembled circuit and has one function:  it acts as either a light, a sound, a sensor, or a motor. The  bricks come together to enable you to create interactive projects within seconds: from a flickering lantern,

to an interactive piggy bank,

to a rotary camera mount.

Understanding the world around us

How does a fridge light come on when you open the door? Why does an elevator door stay open when you walk in front of it? How do radio controlled airplanes hover? We take for granted so many interactions and mechanisms around us, and they start to feel like magic.  At littleBits we try to make every interaction in the world into a ready-to-use-brick, and get kids to build their circuits and make real-world analogies. With nothing but a Servo Motor and a pizza box, one of our community members recreated a phonograph and used it to talk to her kids about how she used to listen to music, and another Bitster recreated this automated Parking garage entrance mechanism.

Learning the fundamentals of programming

Efforts to promote technological and scientific literacy are not new, and several initiatives have tackled the problem head on by promoting programming classes at a young age. Many platforms look to introduce kids to programming at a young age and teach them simplified programming. I believe complementing this with physical and tactile experiences that have digital behaviors helps kids really internalize the concepts, and not just see them in the “abstract” world. One of my favorite sets of modules in the littleBits library are the very un-sexy, but very powerful Logic modules (AND, OR, NO, etc). These enable kids to create circuits with logic that they can relate to in their daily lives, while still learning the concept of logic gates, information flow and decision trees. For example: If this button is pressed AND this light sensor is activated THEN create a buzzing sound. As another layer, we can add timing functions, such as this alarm clock, and introduce the concept of sequential programming.

Innovating at the Intersections

As kids are growing up, they are encouraged or forced to specialize, select their discipline and verticalize their knowledge. As an engineer who created her own electronic artwork, I derived a great amount of fulfillment, but even more, inspiration, from working at the intersection of Art, Design and Engineering. One of my favorite artists in the world is Theo Jansen, a Dutch kinetic artist who creates large and complex robotic installations that move like light and elegant animals.

He shows us that navigating disciplines horizontally can inspire enormously powerful creations. Furthermore, creative solutions to a mechanical problem may come from the field of fashion; solutions to a software problem may come from playing with popsicle sticks. At littleBits we try very hard to create a field-agnostic tool that can create artistic experiences like this Run Horse Run:

 

or this organic 3D printed dragon:

Can we enable a generation of versatile, field-agnostic, fearless creators who not only understand, but instead leverage technology in a creative way? I certainly would like to see us fight for it. Here’s to a generation of artistic electronauts!

Ayah Bdeir, the founder and CEO of littleBits, is an MIT Media Lab alumna and TED Senior Fellow.

 

About the Author: Anna Kuchment is a Contributing Editor at Scientific American and a staff science writer at The Dallas Morning News. She was previously a reporter, writer and editor with Newsweek magazine. She is also author of “The Forgotten Cure,” about bacteriophage viruses and their potential as weapons against antibiotic resistance. Follow on Twitter @akuchment.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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