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There’s a new weapon in the fight to keep kids engaged in computer science — a tiny single-board computer from the U.K. called Kano.

Kano’s the brainchild of Alex Klein, whose young cousin Mika challenged him to create a computer that he could build like Lego. Following an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign — targeting $100,000 in one month, it raised over $1.5M — Kano shipped its first 20,000 units last October. The $150 kit has been received with joy by kids and adults across 86 countries. Some kids are so attached they’ve even been taking their Kanos to bed with them, like a high tech teddy bear.

Girlstart — an Austin, Texas-based charity that helps inspire underprivileged girls to pursue a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education — is ready to start using Kano in some of its in-demand school clubs and summer camps. With an initial order of 40 Kano kits on the way, it’s bringing a U.K. invention to bear on a U.S. education system that’s under-serving girls when it comes to STEM.

I caught up with Girlstart’s executive director, Tamara Hudgins, and Alex Klein to find out how they’re helping inspire a new generation of inventors, coders, and free-thinkers.

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Girlstart allows girls to explore their creativity through technology.

Above: Girlstart allows girls to explore their creativity through technology.

Image Credit: Girlstart

Giving STEM a chance

When Tamara Hudgins joined Girlstart back in the Fall of 2009, it was delivering an after-school program to high-need girls in four Austin, Texas schools. Today, it’s the largest after-school club of its kind in the U.S., working in 52 schools and ready to replicate the model — based on offering inspirational role-models and dynamic, creative STEM opportunities — across the country, alongside its successful summer camps.

Supporting computer science is a large part of Girlstart’s remit — it even started specialist computer science after-school clubs after being approached by Google  “Every girl that comes to our summer camp program will make a fully playable video game,” said Hudgins. “We also do app development, 3D design, 3D printing, and of course, robotics.”

The girls joining Girlstart’s after-school clubs are mostly from high-need communities. 80 percent are non-white and more than 75 percent are on free or reduced school lunches. “Our programs are not for geeks, and its not remedial,” says Hudgins. “It’s for girls that are in the middle that are very likely to lose interest in STEM.”

Girlstart grabs these girls’ attention and inspires them by offering something they don’t get in school.

“Girlstart programs are very sticky,” said Hudgins. “It’s not just the what of what we do; it’s the how. The program leader is not wearing a suit, she doesn’t look like a teacher. She’s wearing a Girlstart T-shirt, she’s bubbly and friendly, and the girls can see that she’s like a bigger sister — ‘Oh, I could be like her …’”

A Girlstart after-school club at Wooten Elementary school in Austin, Texas.

Above: A Girlstart after-school club at Wooten Elementary school in Austin, Texas.

Image Credit: Girlstart

And the ideas the girls come up with, when given the freedom and encouragement to be creative, are often incredible.

Hudgins explained that Girlstart girls designed an app for finding a free parking space back in 2007. The same kind of app that’s all over the Google Play and iOS app stores today.

“It’s not at all surprising to me that girls want to take on very audacious challenges because they don’t see the practical barriers to those types of ideas,” said Hudgins. “That gives us reason to believe that if you give girls the right tools — if you frame your program in the right way — you can keep girls interested in STEM, and you can really dramatically impact the STEM workforce.”

Rasberry Pi vs. Kano

Kano is a complete kit that lets kids build their own computer. At its core, though, is a Rasberry Pi — the $25 single-board computer that launched to big acclaim back in 2012, but left lots of kids (and their well-meaning parents) scratching their heads once they’d got it out the box.

“We love the Rasberry Pi,” said Klein, explaining how he’d once engineered a meeting with its inventor Eben Upton.

“They were really the the first genie out of the bottle for single-board computing. They thought they’d sell a couple of thousands of units — they’ve sold millions.”

The Rasberry Pi is an amazing bit of tech but it's not that kid-friendly in its base form.

Above: The Rasberry Pi: An amazing bit of tech but not that kid-friendly.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

But the initial enthusiasm didn’t translate to kids staying involved in the Pi community. “The people doing the projects — the people sending it into space, turning it into an autonomous submarine — were mostly 44-plus-year-old men who already knew how to code,” says Klein. “They were already developers.”

“Thousand and thousands of parents bought their kids Pis, but after they arrived, they were a bit lost for what to do next,” he explained. “The Dummies Guide to Rasberry Pi was over 400 pages long — tiny text, black and white pictures.”

So Klein took what’s great about the Rasberry Pi — the affordability, the hackability, and the creative freedom — and wrapped it in Kano’s own, appealing, open-source operating system.  As a result, Kano makes the Rasberry Pi feel less like a daunting challenge and more like a creative opportunity. “Our only goal at Kano is to open up its power and its promise to more people,” said Klein.

The Kano

Above: The Kano

Image Credit: Kano

For Hudgins, the Rasberry Pi was great in principle but hard to use effectively. “I think there are more schools outside of the U.S. that are using it effectively than inside the U.S.,” she said. “In the U.S., we don’t really understand how to assemble that kind of thing. That’s why the Kano was so exciting for me to see.”

“It’s like unwrapping a present,” explained Hudgins, describing how the kit’s design neatly leads kids as they piece it together.

Kano was actually the first Kickstarter project that Hudgins personally backed.

“I was like, ‘You know what? That could be perfect for our girls,’” said Hudgins. “It’s a very, very friendly device. I really am looking forward to the things that girls do with it because it absolutely does provide for a true computer science experience. At the same time, it meets girls where they are.”

And that’s the secret for engaging girls in STEM, according to Hudgins: “If you meet girls where they are, they’re perfectly happy to take on significant, meaningful, crazy challenges. If you swap out the word designer and engineer, you’ll get girls interested nine times out of nine.”

Kano's instructions lead kids through the process of building their own computer.

Above: Kano’s instructions lead kids through the process of building their own computer.

Image Credit: Kano

STEM education in the U.S.

The state of STEM education worldwide is a hot topic. In the United States, the Computer Science Education Act is looking to strengthen computer science opportunities across K-12 classrooms. But even if it passes through Congress, it’s unlikely to lead to a coherent nationwide curriculum for computer science, like the computing curriculum that became compulsory for all kids aged five and up in the U.K. this academic year.

For Klein, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“It’s hard enough in a place like the U.K. to get teachers on board, to get them ready to deliver this curriculum,” he said. “In a place like the U.S., with a much greater diversity and variety of system, of curricula, it’s going to be incredibly tricky to create a one size fits all model for STEM education.

“I wouldn’t recommend it either.”

Instead, Klein says we need to ditch buzz words and clichéd terminology and concentrate on giving kids the tools and the time to explore technology.

“IPads are not going to save the classroom,” said Klein. “Learn to code apps are not going to save the classroom. The only thing that’s going to give this generation the ability to grapple with programming, grapple with computing, and to become an inventor in the future is if we stand out of the way a little bit. If we give them resources and time and flexibility and then let them create.”

For Klein, it’s vital that we see computational thinking and creativity as an integrated part of the entire school curriculum.

“Lets integrate it with the humanities, lets integrate it with the sciences and step back and let kids explore with a new toolbox,” he said. “Not create a small slice of the curriculum that is learn Python, learn JavaScript, because those technologies may be obsolete 20 years from now.

“If we say we’re going to teach a whole generation to code in PHP so they can go work at Facebook or to code in C# so they can go work at Zynga, then were going to lose them. We’re going to lose the excitement. We’re going to lose this massive upswelling of creativity.”

Taking control

Klein created Kano knowing that it could help kids at home and in classrooms. What he wasn’t expecting was the diversity of the Kano community, which crosses age barriers and international borders.

“There are 16-year-old girls in Kosovo using it to roll a solar panel back and forth with the direction of the sun,” said Klein. “There are 45-year-old veterans of Operation Desert Storm who are now trying to learn to code after being in construction. We have Japanese aerospace engineers [using it] and Israeli artists who make 3D art.”

It’s because we’re all wanting to take more control of our increasingly tech-driven world, reckons Klein.

“I think there’s a latent hunger in all of us to look below the surface of these incredible screens that govern our lives and feel a sense of control. The iDevice era has definitely left a lot of us feeling estranged from technology — we have a bit of a love hate relationship.”

The Girlstart girls are getting a massive boost in this tech awareness, and it’s opening up options that might not otherwise be possible.

Tamara Hudgins says Girlstart is a "magical" program.

Above: Tamara Hudgins says Girlstart is a “magical” program.

Image Credit: Girlstart

Hudgins shares a story about bumping into a girl at a volleyball group in the local park. Hudgins and the girl were both wearing Girlstart T-Shirts, “so it was immediately clear that we were part of the same tribe.” The girl’s mom was sitting next to her and told Hudgins, “My daughter loves science because of Girlstart.”

It’s not an isolated incident, either. “It happens to me every week,” says Hudgins. “Someone will come up to me in the shops and say, ‘My daughter is in BioMed because of you.’ Unbelievable.”

“There’s something really magical about this program,” says Hudgins. “There is something that happens with girls when they’re in a Girlstart program. They feel valued; they feel like their voice is heard; they feel like they can be creative and brave and curious.”

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