It’s called ‘SAM’, it launched on Kickstarter today, and its makers believe they’ve cracked one of the most difficult problems in educational computing – how to teach young minds the secrets of getting electronic devices and computer code to work together.
It sounds like a tall order until you see the impressive visuals. The London-based team behind SAM describes it as “the ultimate electronics kit for inventors, artists, and students,” but outsiders will probably end up describing it as a sort of ‘Internet-aware electronic Lego’ made up of wireless Bluetooth sensors and motors.
Children can build working systems by connecting the different sensor or motor blocks together using drag-and drop software with the blob of code that makes this happen revealed on-screen though a flow-based app.
Out of this can be built more or less anything the Internet of Things (IoT) has to offer but with an educational bent – lights, servo motors, buzzers, sensors, buttons can quickly be put to work by software in real time. A cloud module allows a system to work across the Internet
The project sprang from the mind of mechanical engineer Joachim Horn, now SAM's CEO, who became frustrated while working in Tokyo at the difficulty of quickly making computer code and electronic devices work together.
Traditionally, students have to learn about electrical circuitry, before moving on to coding, after which the two are put together to get a result. If it doesn’t work, which it often doesn’t, a time-consuming process of debugging becomes necessary. This can take weeks or months.
For children, the time it takes to acquire even the basics is daunting. Educationally, the model is simply not practical which is probably why applied computing in UK schools has turned into a minority interest.
But what if the learning process was reversed, and students were given a working system from the outset? This, Horn reasoned, would allow them to work backwards through the code and electrical design in a deductive way to understand how the system was built. It’s a method that starts with the application - a device performing a function - and works back to the abstraction, turning orthodoxy on its head.
Back in London, Horn developed prototypes with a small team and set about raising more money to take the idea further.
“We, as humans, like to be rewarded because it acknowledges we're doing something right and are moving in the right direction. It makes us persevere to places that we didn't think we could attain,” he told Techworld via email.
“So I thought about creating a system to keep the user rewarded as soon as he managed to get something working, even if very simple, but still support the user as s/he continues to learn and delves into more complex stuff.”
“SAM’s Bluetooth-connected modules can be used to build anything from fridges that create grocery lists, to skateboards that record and post tricks to the web, to bicycle signalling jackets. All easily programmed with the SAM app,” he says.
In a fascinating pointer to the future of high-tech, the team Horn assembled around him in the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator contains designers from Imperial College and the Royal College of Art. These sorts of minds would normally never meet, let alone work together.
He set a fairly modest Kickstarter target of £50,000 (approx. $80,000), which judging from day one might be setting the bar a bit low. Within a few hours of going live, SAM had already breached the £17,000 mark.
If it succeeds in reaching its target it will be another turn-up for the books of an educational tech sector that looked down and out until the fabled Raspberry Pi started to turn the tide in 2011. This movement has gone in a number of directions, including the superlative Kano, another Lego-like project that let’s young people build a complete but cheap computer form simple components, including hardware and software.
The Raspberry Pi’s huge success has encouraged others and suddenly the scene is flowering at last. Schools and young people have waited a long time for this moment and the potential is suddenly huge. The SAM could be another important moment.
Anyone interested in funding the project has until 29 October to add their cash to the Kickstarter total.