The Force is strong with LittleBits, and the educational toy startup aims to reach a whole new fanbase with its latest product—a Star Wars droid invention kit.
The product's appeal was on full display Wednesday when Bay Area students oohed and aahed at the custom R2-D2 droids made with these kits during a special event at Disney's San Francisco LucasFilm offices. The invention kit isn't simply a toy; it's a collection of modular electronics designed to inspire children to learn science, technology and design.
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"You guys are the next generation," LittleBits CEO Ayah Bdeir told the students at the event. "You guys are the inventors and problem solvers of the future. We are counting on you."
The event, called a "Droidathon," was also attended by developers from Google, Facebook, and Fitbit, who were there to act as mentors and designed custom droids using LittleBits's inventor kits.
Afterwards, PCMag sat down with Bdeir to talk about her company's efforts in education, and what it has in store in the future.
PCMag: You mentioned as children grow older, they can lose interest in science and technology. What do you think can be done to reverse this?
Bdeir: The problem is real. Between the ages of 8 and 12 is where we see the biggest drop-offs. And the drop-offs are bigger with girls particularly. It doesn't matter how many [coding] bootcamps you do for 18- and 20-, and 25-year-olds. It doesn't matter how much money you put in if you're not inspiring kids in the beginning. So our mission is to zero-in on that age group and show them how much fun it is.
PCMag: Why do you think children lose interest in tech and science?
Bdeir: Many of them think it is too hard. Many of them think it is boring. Many of them don't see role models that look like them. They don't join maker spaces, after-school programs, robotic camps. They select themselves out of it. And I think that LittleBits has really zeroed-in on bringing these ingredients together: fun has to be there, art and creativity has to be there. Making it really easy to get started, but also having enough headroom so that you can make things complex.
PCMag: Are you already seeing your products making a difference in this area?
Bdeir: We get a lot of fan letters from parents and kids that say they never knew they were creative, they never knew they were good at technology. We hear a lot of teachers say that kids who are doing the worst in class are the ones who are the most engaged with LittleBits. Learning through play is a very effective technique. Somehow, our education system thinks it's not serious enough, but it's very effective. We get a lot of those stories that are sent to us, and it's really energizing.
PCMag: What are your company's plans for the future?
Bdeir: The product is just the beginning. We want to inspire kids to do this every day. To come up with new ideas, and to want to make them themselves. We don't wants kids to just be tech-savvy by using an iPad or a computer. They are tech-savvy by understanding the inner workings of technology. We are continuously building up the platform. We are continuously doing partnerships. And we'll do a lot more things with Star Wars and Disney as well.
PCMag: Do you expect your Star Wars droid invention kit to be your biggest product yet?
Bdeir: It's definitely our biggest product because it also brings in an audience that is not necessarily familiar with LittleBits. A lot of people are now entering LittleBits through Star Wars. It's great for us because it allows us to open to a wider audience that's more kind of mainstream.
PCMag: Where is the BB-8 droid invention kit?
Bdeir: Stay tuned.
PCMag: Three years ago, your LittleBits inventor kits were in 2,000 schools. What is the figure now?
Bdeir: Yes, it's about 20,000. We created an education team. And we also started to make products for education. This year we launched the LittleBits Code Kit, which is made for schools. It's made for classrooms, three students at a time. And it's all about teaching kids how to code through making games. Our biggest market is in the US, but we're also in the UK, Europe. We're also in Japan, we're also in Australia, and we're also in Canada.
PCMag: Your products focus on children ages 8 to 12. Do you plan on expanding to other age groups?
Bdeir: We could go up, we could go down. But there's so much more ground to cover in that age group, and if we can really solve a problem there, I feel like we can make a big impact. So I feel we are not in a big hurry until we feel like we've solved it.
This interview has been edited for length.