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STEM toys have never been more popular, a trend that’s coincided with growing workplace demand for programming skills. In 2017, there were almost ten times more computing jobs available than there were students who earned computer science degrees three years ago, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
LittleBits, a New York-based startup founded in 2011 with the goal of breaking down complex technology into form factors anyone can understand, is committed to doing something about that imbalance. Its electronics kits for kids are available in more than 70 countries and 20,000 schools, and today, hot on the heels of the Droid Inventor Kit it launched late last year, the startup announced its latest creation: the Avengers Hero Inventor Kit.
The Avengers Hero Inventor Kit, which costs $149 and is available for preorder starting today, is a graduate of Disney’s accelerator program. LittleBits worked closely with Marvel to ensure that every sound effect, graphic, and visual remained true to the spirit of its sprawling fictional universe.
“After the Droid Inventor Kit, we talked with Marvel about doing a follow-up,” Emily Tuteur, director of product design at LittleBits, told VentureBeat. “We wanted to make something that anyone could enjoy regardless of age, gender, or background … but we also wanted to get more girls involved.”
Tuteur said that the Droid Inventor Kit has about a 40 percent adoption rate with girls. That isn’t much higher than the percentage of women who hold a computer science degree, which reached its peak in the 1980s at 34 percent.
Sobering statistics aside, there’s something irresistible about LittleBits’ colorful new kit. (It had even me, a 24-year-old who’s never owned an action figure, eager to give it a test drive.) The Avengers Hero Inventor Kit comes with nine bits — small, color-coded circuit boards that snap magnetically together — seven “superhero parts,” and a circular LED matrix that’s fully programmable (a not-so-subtle wink and nod Iron Man’s Arc Reactor).
The pièce de résistance is a clear, translucent plastic gauntlet — the company’s first wearable — designed to make any Iron Man-in-training feel a little bit more heroic. A removable sheath and included stickers (in gold, purple, white, and red) allow kids to customize its look and feel, and a vertical stand lets them display it proudly for all the world to see. It’s even got slots and holes that let budding Avengers attach cardboard and other decorative materials to it, like a Black Panther-inspired vibranium extension.
“We found that when kids are inventing something that’s on their body or [reflects] their identity, it’s a very strong personal connection for them,” Tuteur said.
There’s more to the gauntlet than looks, though — it’s the baseboard to which the bits attach. Batteries (9-volt) supply about 16 hours of battery life to the bits, which support a nearly endless number of configurations.
A companion app for Android and iOS handles onboarding. Kids start by creating a superhero identity and completing 18 different activities themed around familiar Avengers, including The Hulk, Black Widow, Black Panther, and Shuri. Each bit is cleverly themed around an Avenger’s special abilities — Ant Man’s and Wasp’s activities are “all about speed and agility,” Tuteur explained, and so involve the accelerometer. Black Widow’s tutorials, meanwhile, are “all about stealth,” and so use the light sensor.
Once kids complete the activities, the app encourages them to jump into Coding Canvas, LittleBits’ block programming interface, which teaches them to execute more complex routines.
A couple of bits not found in other LittleBits kits make their debut in the Avengers Hero Inventor Kit, such as the sound effects bit, which comes with 10 preloaded effects and recording feature that lets kids add their own. The aforementioned accelerometer bit is new, too, as is the LED matrix. (LittleBits currently sells an LED matrix à la carte, but only to education customers.)
The LED matrix is far and away the highlight. Using the app, kids can design their own light animations and hero icons. And when it’s plugged into the light sensor, they can adjust the fill or brightness with a wave of their hands.
“From creating circuits to introducing superpowers like stealth mode, rainbow control, power boost, and more, the Avengers Hero Inventor Kit teaches kids about STEAM in a fun, accessible way,” Ayah Bdeir, founder and CEO of LittleBits, said. “We’re thrilled to extend our relationship with Disney to now work with the amazing team at Marvel to give kids the skills — and the confidence — to change the world.”
LittleBits is no stranger to collaborations. It teamed up with NASA to design the Space Kit, which lets kids build a model Mars Rover and International Space Station. And it worked with KORG to create the Synth Kit, which comes with instructions for putting together a DIY synthesizer.
In 2014, it launched the bitLab, a marketplace for products built using LittleBits kits and modules — LittleBits calls it an “app store for hardware.”
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