Coding and Invention Made Fun

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While walking through London’s Science Museum, I stumbled into SAM Labs’ Internet of Things (IoT) pop up shop, where I saw a brief demonstration of this drum machine kit.  I was quickly sucked in and wanted to learn more about coding kits for children, as I could foresee their applicability for all sorts of devices within the home in addition to these kits focus on childhood education.

SAM is a series of kits that integrates hardware and software with the Internet.  Combining wireless building blocks composed of sensors (input devices, such as buttons or a pressure sensor) and actors (output devices, such as lights and motors) controlled by a computer interface, SAM allows you to connect these physical blocks by dragging and dropping virtual likenesses of them on your computer screen.  The sensors detect the outer world while the actors perform actions within it.  From any number of  SAM kits, one can create diverse inventions, such as:  an interactive doorbell, an alarm clock, a robot, an interactive lighting wall, a cat feeder, a Twitter art installation, and drawings turned into music.

According to its mission statement, SAM Labs seek to “give everyone the tools and skills to build and shape the future of the Internet of Things.”  After playing around with SAM blocks for an hour, I had fun with the most simple computer interface I have ever seen.  But, should I have wanted to fiddle around with the code, this would be also possible as the java script is easily accessible and customizable for those with more advanced coding skills as well as children just starting out.  The intuitive nature of these wireless Bluetooth kits allow users to create gadgets that replace and improve upon ready-made devices without being bogged down by wires and coding that can typically take hours to debug.

What attracted me to SAM was exactly what will excite any user — young or old, student or professional:  The ability to seamlessly intuit how to use the blocks while not feeling limited by what appears to be its simplicity nor overwhelmed by the complexity of what these blocks actually do when you link them together.  Imagine Lego for the Internet age, where you are not bound by the shapes or colors and where you can literally fit any block to any other, and so forth.

But SAM Labs is by no means alone on the educational coding market for children. There are dozens of other such companies working on educational coding tools for children such as Sphero, Kano, Ozobot, and Lego’s WeDo resources.  For those who wish to use only online resources for teaching coding to children, there are many free to low-cost resources with code.org, Codeacademy, Code Avengers, Crunchzilla, Scratch, and iD Tech, with many teaching kids the best languages for artificial intelligence (AI).  In fact, what is fascinating about these coding tools for children is that not only are children encouraged to invent and build connected gadgets in seconds without any coding knowledge, but children are given a deeper understanding as to how AI code can function outside the commercial confines of Alexa, tracking tools that assess risk, and online ad networks.  In fact, coding becomes as creative as it is utilitarian.  For young minds, these coding tools aim to incorporate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) learning into elementary education such that little to no knowledge of coding does not impede one’s ability to effectively create on the IoT. 

I had initially assumed that such technology was too inaccessible for my two-year-old daughter, given the high tech nature of this kit.  But, after a few minutes of playing with SAM blocks at the Science Museum that day, I realized that not only was SAM not too old for my child, it was not too young for me!

About the author: Julian Vigo is a contributor to Forbes, TruthDig, CounterPunch, Dissident Voice, HuffPost UK, and The Ecologist. Her latest book is "Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development" (2015). She can be reached at julian.vigo@gmail.com.




Edited by Erik Linask
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