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Piper brings the playability of Minecraft to computer engineering

Recently, I helped (let’s be honest, mostly watched) someone build a PC for the first time.

Now, I’m not exactly what you’d call a “tech-savy” person—by which I mean computers scare the living daylights out of me. They’re just so daunting: their finickiness and delicacy, the mountains of information needed to keep up-to-date with the tech, having to learn an entirely new language to communicate in. Let’s just say that trying to get into computer engineering is not what one might call “user-friendly” (am I using that right?)

we’ll need a generation of kids unintimidated by [technology’s] complexity 

But actually watching computer engineering happen? That’s magical, pure and simple. The first time you crack open a computer case to catch glimpse of the motherboard, it’s like gazing into a miniature alien city. Blinking lights and four-inch skyscrapers light up the eternal darkness the motherboard lives in. You can’t believe that everything this machine is capable of comes down to an orderly layout of strings and LEGO pieces.

I probably don’t have to convince you of the beauty of technology. But if it’s taken me this long—a person technically working in a field of technology—to have a hands-on experience with computer engineering’s beauty, then we’ve got a problem. Because the more integrated we become with technology, the more that alien city making your computer work will also become responsible for making our real world cities work. And, to continue improving on a world built with technology, we’ll need a generation of kids unintimidated by its complexity.

Which is where the Piper toolbox comes in.

“We believe that when you use electronics straight out of the box, you don’t really own it or understand it,” the Kickstarter campaign says. “Somebody else made it for you to consume, so we wanted Piper to be different.”

In simplified terms, the Piper toolbox provides that mesmerizing hands-on experience with computer engineering that too many people miss. Specifically, for kids in the throes of developing hobbies that can eventually turn into career paths. Knowing that our future relies on kids understanding the tools they use day-in and day-out, the Piper teams wants “kids to look at technology and be able to deconstruct it and reconstruct it in a way that can be better, more efficient, and really innovative to improve the world.”

Here’s how it works: you assemble your own wooden box with an LED screen, powerpack, and mouse, along with a Raspberry Pi 2 Linux board for all the electronics. You build everything from the ground-up, including the controller you use to interact with the modified Minecraft level. In the philosophy of LEGO, no instruction manual is needed.

“Low floor, high ceiling, wide walls.” 

The premise of the Minecraft level revolves around a robot that’s sent to an unknown planet. You control the robot from mission control, so when it takes damage upon arrival, you must both repair it and help carry out the mission goals. Each challenge requires you to physically build new hardware in the Piper toolbox, which corresponds to an on-screen schematic.

For example, installing and turning on switches can open doors. Dark areas that are ripe for diamond-hunting requires LED light proximity censors. The electronics can be combined in all sorts of different ways, allowing you overcome all sorts of challenges with your own unique solution. And while there are set levels, the teams says “we want you to invent things we didn’t even think of, so we are using completely off-the-shelf hardware and electronics so that you can add literally any electronics components in existence to build your own cool power-ups!” 

Piper provides a system that’s simultaneously easy to understand and expand on. While designing the learning platform, they adopted the principles that MIT’s Mitchel Resnick describes as “low floor, high ceiling, wide walls.” Removing all barriers was a top priority, along with creating an Open Source tool to allow these budding engineers a reason to collaborate online, while getting feedback on their experiments in realtime on through a Minecraft game loop.

There’s lots of personal testimonials vouching for Piper from teachers, principals and even vice president of games at Zynga, Maureen Fan. But the testimonial that matters most to the Piper team is from the minds they’re trying to inspire. “The kids we worked with became a lot more confident about themselves as creators and builders,” they say on the Kickstarter. “It doesn’t take a lot to inspire a child to believe in herself. And we want Piper to be the first step. To give today’s kids a relevant and fun way to become the inventors of tomorrow.”

Though Piper has already surpassed its funding goal, the team will continue to add stretch goals in the remaining weeks of the campaign. Get your own Piper toolbox here!