Game helps kids crack the code at an early age-Project Olympus - Carnegie Mellon University

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Game helps kids crack the code at an early age

Wouldn’t it be great if kids could play computer games that taught them how to analyze and strategize instead of just blasting away at space aliens and zombies?

Puzzlets was developed by Pittsburgh-based startup Digital Dream Labs for ages 6 through 10. It’s designed to teach basic programming and coding skills and to make gameplay time educational as well as entertaining.

“Ultimately, we want to transition kids from being consumers of technology and media to creators of technology and media,” said Digital Dream Labs co-founder Matt Stewart. "We want to introduce kids in a fun and engaging way to topics that they’re going to need to learn or have an interest in.”

Digital Dream Labs was founded by Mr. Stewart, Peter Kinney and Justin Sabo, who met while graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center, a specialized, interdisciplinary graduate program that combines design, art and technology, and teaches skills needed to develop video games, interactive museum exhibits and more.

In 2012, Mr. Stewart was part of an ETC team working on a project for the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. The museum wanted an interactive exhibit that would teach kids as young as 4 about computer programming. His group came up with a tabletop exhibit combined with projections and wooden puzzle pieces. Colleagues and friends were supportive and encouraged him to pursue the concept.

Mr. Stewart, Mr. Kinney and Mr. Sabo decided to start a company and Digital Dream Labs was born. Mr. Kinney was a computer science major at Carnegie Mellon.

“He was the rock star developer of the class, and I had seen a lot of his work,” Mr. Stewart said. “Justin I had worked with on a project. When he saw the museum exhibit, he told me, ‘If you’re going to do something with this, I want in.’ ”

In spring 2013, startup accelerator AlphaLab took Digital Dream Labs under its wing to help bring Puzzlets to market and the company went to work on the prototype. Two years later, Puzzlets was ready: It was exhibited at Maker Faire Pittsburgh at the Children’s Museum in October.

“Originally we thought we were going to be the Nintendo of museum exhibits,” Mr. Stewart said. “We were going to make new modules that could live on the same interactive platform.”

As the concept evolved, they found the museum market was too limited.

“We love the informal learning environment, the hands-on and collaborative learning that can happen in the museum,” he said. “We decided we wanted to bring that back into the home.”

With mobile devices readily available to many households, that dream became a reality.

Puzzlets combines a downloadable game app with a Nintendo-like gaming console. The starter pack contains a tray and 22 programming tiles, along with a free download of software for Cork the Volcano, a game that can be played on iPads, iPhones, iMacs, MacBooks and Android tablets and phones. Cork the Volcano is available through Google Play and the App Store. The Puzzlets starter pack is sold through the Digital Dream Labs website and through Amazon for $99.99.

Puzzlets takes away the game controller and gives young players puzzle pieces that direct their movements through the game environment. They have to think through what their next action will be.

“You’re creating a sequence of steps, much like a computer would follow once you tell it what to do. You’re equipping your character and telling him what he needs to do next,” Mr. Stewart said. “The idea is to learn to think like a programmer, working on the logic and sequencing skills.”

Players move the characters through the game by setting up a specific sequence of tiles on the tray. The programming tiles have chips inside and communicate with the game software wirelessly through Bluetooth or a wired USB connection. Command tiles steer a character to move left or right, or to jump or stop. Modifiers refine the character’s movement by speeding it up or slowing it down.

“It helps kids focus on slowing down, which is one of those things we see with the instant gratification kind of style of games, especially when they’re used for pacification or a need to keep them busy for a little while. It doesn’t really help them think through a situation or a problem. It just lets them attack it with brute force until they’re finished. Here there’s a little more thought process behind why and how something is happening,” Mr. Stewart said.

Digital Dream Labs plans to expand Puzzlets beyond teaching programming and coding skills, adding games that will teach chemistry — with tiles picturing atoms, music — with music note tiles, and a spaceship-themed game that will teach engineering principles. Read More»

By: Adrian McCoy