Cheap Kits Make Programming Accessible for Kids

Boasting four kilobytes of RAM and a $666.66 price tag (roughly $2,750 in 2014 dollars, adjusted for inflation), the Apple-I home computer went on sale in April 1976. It did not include a case, keyboard, or monitor, but The Byte Shop in Mountain View, California sold 200 of them.

In the 38 years since the first Apple-I hit the market, computers have shrunk in size, weight and price.

The difficulty of using and understanding computers has diminished as well. In the past decade, educators have taken advantage of their recent simplicity to bring computer science and programming to younger audiences, separating computer technology from its arcane connotation and legitimizing it as a fun and valuable education tool.

In contrast with their ancestors’ unwieldy, hand-soldered and expensive cores, fully featured computer systems such as the Raspberry Pi and Arduino are available on online stores today for a modest price of around $40.

The Raspberry Pi includes all the necessary features of a desktop computer, complete with ports for RCA video, HDMI, USB, LAN, RAM, an audio jack and an SD card slot.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation (a U.K. registered charity) markets their product as an infinitely customizable computer that can be used by anyone.

As stated on the company’s website, “We want to break the paradigm where without spending hundreds of pounds on a PC, families cannot use the Internet. We want owning a truly personal computer to be normal for children, and we’re looking forward to what the future has in store.”

With its simplicity of use and reasonable price, numerous start-ups have arisen with the goal to bring knowledge of computers to children using Raspberry Pi and the similar Arduino.

Kano, a London-based startup, is one such company with an aim to provide children with an experience of building and programming computers using the simplicity and economical power of the Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi computer photo courtesy of Sage Ross on Flickr

The Raspberry Pi computer
photo courtesy of Sage Ross on Flickr

Launched using Kickstarter, an online crowdsourcing website, the company advertises the Kano kit as “a computer anyone can make,” and compares their computer-building process to building a Lego set.

Since the initiation of the project in November 2013, Kano has raised over $1.5 million in support, 1,522% of their original funding goal, “the most crowdfunded learning invention of all time.”

Suli Breaks, a spoken word poet and advocate for the Kano project, describes Kano as something that “gives the power to create back to the people. It gives people the tools to create. It gives them the mindset to think that this was once closed, but it is now open.”

Kano comes as a kit containing the Raspberry Pi, colorful and picture-filled instruction guides, a speaker system, a customizable case, an SD card pre-loaded with a Kano operating system, a Wi-Fi connector, cables and stickers.

After building the computer using the step-by-step instruction booklet, the user plugs it into a monitor and is ready to begin coding.

With the Kano system, users build their own computer, customize it to their liking, code popular games like “Snake” and “Pong,” hack familiar games like Minecraft and write their own digital music.

Kano is still in production but can be preordered for $129. With support, the kit could enter classrooms around the world in the near future.

However, one drawback to the Kano kit is that it is not geared toward children under the age of six. Primo is another crowd- sourced project that aims to bring computer programming to an even younger demographic.

Unlike Kano, Primo is based off a physical interface and “teaches children programming logic without the need for literacy,” according to their Kickstarter page.

Instead of entering codes and scripts into a computer, children program a small robot by inserting “instructional blocks” into a physical, wooden board containing circuits and an Arduino. These blocks cause the robot to move and navigate obstacles set up by the user.

Primo joins the science of programming with the ease of assembling a toy. With the kit, users are able to gain a basic understanding of programming with the ease of playing with a toy.

For children to better understand digital programming, the MIT’s Media Lab has created Scratch. An online program designed for children aged 8-16, Scratch features a uniquely straightforward coding program, where users organize puzzle-like “blocks” containing bits of code.

In doing so, kids are able to access the functionality of programming without full literacy in the traditional coding method.

This system guides users to create interactive stories, games, and animations that are completely customizable.

Scratch claims to help its young users “learn to think creatively, reason systematically and work collaboratively— essential skills for life in the 21st century.”

Implementation of computer science into school curriculums is not a far-fetched idea. Celebrities ranging from Bill Gates to former mayor Michael Bloomberg to NBA star Chris Bosh have supported the movement to bring computer science to more children.

Programming and understanding computers is an extremely valuable skill to teach to children in the 21st century.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Employment Matrix predicted that an estimated 175,100 new jobs for computer application software engineers will be created by 2018, and estimated a median salary of $94,180 a year.

In the dawning age of computers and their growing presence in the American lifestyle, an understanding of computer science and technology has become a staple of the modern children’s education.

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