Technology isn’t all coding and computer games. Technology Will Save Us is on a mission to inspire a ‘creator generation’ with their unique DIY kits. We meet CEO and co-founder Bethany Koby to talk soldering irons, battling gender perceptions and 21st-century crafting.
For many parents, kids technology has become synonymous with computer games and apps or the seemingly mysterious, foreign world of coding. It’s a word that is increasingly divisive and loaded with parental guilt too: technology is derided as the modern Pied Piper, distracting our children from time better spent climbing trees, building campfires and reading books. It’s rare to find a parent these days who isn’t concerned about the amount of time their kids spend in front of a screen of one size or another.
Without question, over the last decade our children have increasingly become consumers rather than creators of technology, and a lot of focus in education policy over the last few years has been placed on correcting this balance and teaching children to code.
But what about technology beyond the screen? The CDT of our own childhoods? Ask your average 35-year-old and they will have a lucid memories of soldering their classmate’s watch to a desk, clamping fingers instead of joints and building spice racks from dowling for Mother’s Day. Anyone remember a trigonometry lesson the same way?
Hackney-based start-up Technology Will Save Us is on a mission to spark the creative imagination of our nation’s children by reconnecting them with hands-on learning through technology. They currently produce 6 DIY kits, with more in development, and each is designed around every day themes – gardening, recycling, gaming, music and fashion. Everything you do with the products is in the ‘real world’, rather than just on a screen, and the kits are designed to get families inventing, playing and tinkering with their creations.
The best-selling Electro Dough teaches simple conductivity principles using play dough and LEDs to make circuits, while the Thirsty Plant kit gets kids building a simple sensor that causes an LED to flash when a plant needs watering. There’s also a speaker kit, a DIY synthesiser to unleash your inner Kraftwerk, and the very popular DIY gamer – a stripped-back handheld games console that kids build from scratch (soldering and all) and then code with simple games. The gamer kit now forms part of the permanent collection at the MoMa in New York and was shortlisted for the 2015 Design of the Year award at the Design Museum.
“The way we define tech is really broad”, explains co-founder and CEO Bethany Koby, “it’s not just about a screen or computer programming. That’s part of it but for us tech goes much further. It’s making dough and understanding conductivity, designing and testing, electronics and soldering, building a simple sensor as well as programming, debugging and problem solving.
“Coding is getting a lot of attention right now and it should. It is an important skill. But we don’t want to build a generation of developers. We want to build a generation of creative problem solvers that see technology as they something they can do.”
The authors of the National Curriculum agree. According to the Purpose of Study for Design and Technology: ‘High-quality design and technology education makes an essential contribution to the creativity, culture, wealth and well-being of the nation’.
In all the hoopla surrounding the quest to raise the next Mark Zuckerberg, we sometimes lose site of the bigger picture: “Kids are going to learn coding anyway. That’s the new normal for them. The jobs that will exist by the time our kids are older don’t even exist right now. I don’t think just learning HTML and knowing how to program on Scratch is the pathway. Programming is just one part of a suite of what we see as necessary 21st century skills”.
Bethany, a designer and art director originally from Los Angeles, co-founded the company from home in 2011 with her husband, Daniel Hirschmann. They have a 3-year-old son, Ash. The focus on creating technology as a family is core to their products. “Our ambition is to be the gateway for families to become creators of technology around the kitchen table. We want to empower parents to understand what their kids are doing and help inspire them.
“There is really important learning that happens in childhood, in the 4-12 period. Kids are developing their sense of self, their passions and interests. We want to inject technology in interesting ways along that journey. You just don’t know what a young person is going to get excited about – the more you present to them, the more things they can get their hands on, the more you as a parent can discover what your kids are really passionate about.”
And if you’re worried that your knowledge of circuit boards, conductivity and LEDs is a little rusty (or is altogether lacking), Bethany and her team have your back: each kit comprises both the physical components and instruction sheet, and a host of digital resources to support them, from short videos on concepts like how LEDs and electricity work to endless ideas for how to customise, hack and extend the kits.
The open-ended nature of the kits is refreshing in an age where children seem to lose interest in a toy or computer game very quickly. All of them are designed with a dual learning objective: first, all come with clear instructions on how to build an initial object and understand how the components work, whether that’s a moisture sensor, gamer or speaker. “We want kids to be confident. There is something about being able to go through a process and have something work that gives that feeling of being successful.” But then the real fun starts. With every product there are further things kids can do: connecting it, modifying it, hacking it and using other things in the house to extend the kit’s potential applications.
For example, the Electro Dough kit can be used to build a simple Operation-style game using a roll of tin foil. The basic plant moisture sensor can form the basis of an automatic watering can. The designs and supporting materials are continually evolving too based on feedback from users. Each of the speaker kits now includes a balloon after a little girl at a workshop they hosted created a brilliant speaker from one.
Getting girls engaged with the kits has been very successful and the products have been very deliberately designed and positioned to appeal to all children. Bethany’s experience of raising a boy has clearly had an influence on this:
“Our son plays with a real range of toys. He has an iPad and screen time is important to us, but we set clear limits on it. We make a lot as a family: using our kits, building and construction sets and we do lots of craft-based activities. We try not to be too gender specific but it’s really hard. There aren’t a lot of crafty things that aren’t bracelets or very heavily marketed towards girls. It’s very frustrating. It’s amazing how gender specific toys have become. You go to the craft section of Hamleys and it’s not just girly, it’s so girly.
“My son likes that stuff but he will get to an age when he will try and associate with an identity and he’s being forced to not be crafty and creative because some toy company has decided that everything should be pink.”
The company originally started life as an educational workshop provider and quickly found that the gender split was 50/50. In a customer survey earlier this year they discovered that 52% of customers had bought kits for girls.
“It’s 21st century crafting – we sit somewhere between the traditional construction toys, Lego and science kits that are often targeted at boys and the crafty stuff, which is so often aimed at just girls. We sit in a new space, a category of creator toys along with companies like Kano and Little Bits. We have strived really hard not to fall into the trap of gender specific toys.”
Bringing the kits to a wide cross-section of children is a fundamental aspect of the business, which is reflected both in the pricing of the products and the myriad outreach and educational projects they play a role in. The kits cost between £15 and £65 and are sold directly via their website and at key retailers such as the Science Museum. “We want to design our kits for a fair price and we’ve worked very hard to create a supply chain that does that because we don’t want price to be the determining factor in not doing something. Spending £100-£200 on a product for an 8-year-old is prohibitive. It’s important that this is about accessibility and enjoyment.”
The price also facilitates kids owning these kits for themselves, rather than being a device they share with family members or that they leave behind at school at the end of the day. Ownership is, according to Bethany, a fundamental part of getting kids to engage with technology, “There is definitely something about kids and their relationship to stuff they make. They learn more when they are interested in the thing they are building. There was a little girl who made the speaker kit and her mum sent us a picture of her sleeping with it that night. If our kids slept with their iPads we’d be upset. There is no ownership to those devices in the same way.”
The company has also formed learning partnerships with schools, code clubs and other providers including The Prince’s Trust, the Scouts and Barclays Code Playground. Most recently, they were a core product partner in the pioneering BBC Micro:bit project alongside technology heavyweights Samsung, Microsoft and ARM. The initiative will provide one million 12-year-olds across the country with their own wearable, codeable device with almost infinite possible uses and integrations. Technology Will Save Us will also be making the device available as a kit very soon.
“These programs help us reach a really diverse range of children across the country. It’s really important to us that we create that sort of access. The Prince’s Trust, for example, helps us get our kits to a lot of very hard to reach young people – a lot who aren’t in school or haven’t had much opportunity within education. These aren’t kids who are joining their local code clubs.
“We have trained over 75 Prince’s Trust instructors to use the kits and facilitate learning with them. They focus a lot on team and confidence building but haven’t traditionally used technology very much in their programming. Engaging 17-year-old girls who spend all day looking at their phones is a challenge, but with the Gamer Kits we’ve been able to introduce tech in a way that is relevant and interesting and maybe helps them see opportunities in a way that traditional outward bound activities don’t. Tech is a way of making some of these initiatives relevant to young people.”
Young or old, the kits are educational and addictive and if you have any 30-something kids in your household I would recommend buying two.
Whether it’s a throwback to those CDT lessons or just a welcome break from a screen, the kits seem to ignite something in every adult I have shown them to. My husband and I were connecting LEDs to toy dinosaurs long after our son went to bed and if you come over on a Saturday evening you may just be lucky enough to get my best Daft Punk rendition on the synth kit. No, really, it’s quite uncanny.
Find out more at www.techwillsaveus.comKate Douglas-Hamilton is Mr Fox co-founder. A recovering lawyer, she now writes about food, art and kids technology. She has one son, aged 3. Find her on Twitter @katedh.