A Growing Technology Cluster—Whose Products You Can Touch

[In the Pittsburgh region there’s a growing groundswell of edupreneurs. In this RemakeLearning article several edupreneurs are mentioned including Tom Lauwers, the founder and Chief Scientist at Birdbrain Technologies. I’m fortunate to work with Tom on several elements for Birdbrain, including the Robot Petting Zoo happenings that have happened here in Pittsburgh and Berkeley, California.]

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One afternoon in 2012, Matt Stewart was in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh watching kids play with puzzle pieces. The pieces were part of an exhibit Stewart helped design to teach the building blocks of coding to children as young as four. He soon noticed one young girl taking charge with some puzzle pieces, and showing her classmates how to use them to solve problems. The girl’s teacher told Stewart that the student was usually behind her peers in many areas of learning, but the puzzle pieces seemed to click with her.

Photo/Digital Dream Labs

An idea for a company was born. Stewart and his cofounders, Justin Sabo and Peter Kinney, fellow Carnegie Mellon University graduates, founded Digital Dream Labs in 2012. Today, their first product, Puzzlets, uses puzzle pieces and sensors to control video games and teach skills like logic and sequencing in a hands-on way.

“If you’re on a touch screen, you’re in your own zone,” Sabo said. “You’re no longer here.” At a time when so much technology for kids is screen-based, Puzzlets’ physical pieces invite problem solving and collaboration with parents or peers.

Sabo and his cofounders are part of a small scene of entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh who are creating hands-on educational technology, toys, and games, and in the process are helping to create a cluster of entrepreneurs, designers, and manufacturers that could situate Pittsburgh as a hub of edtech hardware production. The scene is small but seems poised to grow into the type of industry cluster that characterizes maker-oriented Pittsburgh.

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Students with Special Needs respond to Interactive Robots

[Programming and robotics do not always lead to real-world applications. Here’s a great project where high school students are learning to program a robot, Nao, to work with an elementary autistic student.]

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One New Jersey school district here has a new member of its teaching staff: Nao, an interactive robot that works with students who have autism and those with language impairments.

It has been with Wayne Public Schools about three months, and advanced computer science students at Wayne Hills High School have been busy programming and learning about it.

The robot, which cost about $8,000 and was obtained with federal funds, was created by a company called Alderbran and was initially researched by Wayne’s Pines Lake Elementary School Principal Jose Celis.

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Girls of Steel Robotics Team Triumph

APR 6, 2015
The Girls of Steel pose for a photo after receiving the Chairman's Award at a regional robotics competition in Cleveland. The fifty-member, all-female team will compete at FIRST robotics championship April 22-25 in St. Louis.

The Girls of Steel pose for a photo after receiving the Chairman’s Award at a regional robotics competition in Cleveland. The fifty-member, all-female team will compete at FIRST robotics championship April 22-25 in St. Louis. CREDIT COURTESY PHOTO

With women earning less than 20 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in physics, engineering and computer science, some might consider Becca Volk an anomaly, but among her teammates on Pittsburgh’s all-female Girls of Steel competitive robotics team, Volk fits right in. The 16 yr. old junior at Avonworth High School knows she wants to be an engineer someday.

On March 28, Girls of Steel won the Chairman’s Award at the Buckeye Regional FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) in Cleveland, which qualifies the team to compete in the FRC Championship April 22-25 in St. Louis.

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