Some assembly required: Play games and learn STEM with Piper’s $300 kit

Piper
Source: Piper

For technology start up Piper, having kids build a basic computer from scratch is not enough. The company's founders actually want to show kids how to upgrade the unit themselves, and in the process immerse them in the basics of science, math and technology.

The brainchild of co-founders Mark Pavlyukovskyy and Joel Sadler, the Piper Computer Kit includes all the components a budding electrical engineer needs, including a display, breadboard, switches, mouse and a heavily customized edition of popular video game "Minecraft." At its heart is the low-cost Raspberry Pi, a basic credit card-sized computer designed with students in mind.

To create a friendly computer, Piper enclosed the computer in a handcrafted wooden box that echoes a laptop when opened.

"That was important to have the user feel like they understood the parts of the system, to feel something that was a little more rough, a little more natural and more friendly," Sadler — a former Apple engineer with a doctorate from Stanford — told CNBC in a recent telephone interview.


"Minecraft" was included after kids wanted to run the game on earlier versions of the kit, a decision the company says engages kids with no experience or interest in electronics, programming and engineering. "We want people to get the sense they can push the walls and modify the world for the better," Sadler added.

The Piper kit is decidedly do-it-yourself (DIY), which is not what one would expect in the modern age of instant tech gratification — but it's exactly what its creators intend. However, they also insist that Piper is just simple enough for kids to assemble it without being overwhelmed or frustrated.

"We have not found that it's effective with kids to drop them cold turkey into a sea of modules or components or technical details," says Pavlyukovskyy, a doctoral candidate at Oxford.

Piper's tech comes at a critical juncture, as both the average science and mathematics literacy scores for U.S. 15-year-olds remain mired below the average score for all developed countries. In response, the White House has floated a plan to invest a total of $7 billion in science, technology, engineering and math education across the nation, intended to help expand access to STEM courses and improving teaching of the subjects.


The tech start-up has raised $2.1 million in seed funding to date through investors including FoundersX, Chaac Ventures, 500 Startups, Princeton University and individual investors, with previous funding from accelerator Company Lab (Co.Lab).

At $300, the Piper may represent a pricey investment, which is roughly on par with a (fully assembled and functional) iPod Touch or an Xbox. The DIY Kano Computer Kit, a Piper competitor, doesn't include a screen but costs only $150. And the Raspberry Pi alone, while bare-bones, costs only $35 and can be used by itself after connecting basic computer parts. Still, Pavlyukovskyy argues that Piper is both self-contained and tear-down friendly.

"It's the same idea as Lego," he told CNBC. "As a goal you're building towards a picture on the box, right, like a castle or a pirate ship, but then after you're done following the instructions of Lego, you can actually start tweaking the design, building on it, adding parts, moving parts."

Much like how its founders built Piper, "we use ... standard off-the-shelf parts and we give you a goal that you're building towards," Pavlyukovskyy added. "And then once you're done we actually open up the whole experience to you."