DIY computers, robot-making kits and smart paint are helping children to learn basic engineering and electronics
The UK is experiencing a chronic shortage of engineers . Economists fear that if today’s youth doesn’t develop the skills to meet the needs of our increasingly hi-tech economy, future growth could stall.
To get more children excited about coding, technology and engineering, a raft of start-ups are looking to bridge the gap between Lego and the Raspberry Pi, the do-it-yourself computer launched in 2012, to create tomorrow’s technologists.
“The Pi is challenging and uncompromising,” explains Ross Atkin, founder of The Crafty Robot, which makes kits for building simple moving robots.
“The entry point is quite high. If you’re not already interested in computers or electronics, it’s not easy to understand why you would want to play with a Raspberry Pi.”
Following in the footsteps of pioneers such as Technology Will Save Us, which lets ordinary people build their own speakers, for example, Atkin launched his company in early 2014 to help children build basic robots and pick up some core engineering skills.
He created the Fizzbit – a small rechargeable motor – and paired it with designs that can be printed and folded to create a body.
He clinched his first batch of orders on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website, last month, securing 1,500 backers and selling 4,000 of his little £5 robots.
“We show that engineering isn’t just typing code or soldering stuff. Electronics aren’t just black boxes, they are part of how we interact with the world around us.”
The UK will need more than a million new engineers and technicians in the next five years, according to estimates by the Royal Academy of Engineering. This means the nation needs to double the number of engineering graduates and apprentices coming into the jobs market.
“The more we get young people aware and engaged with technology, the better,” says Dr Zoë Webster, of Innovate UK, the Government’s technology arm. “The importance of digital technology and tools for robotics, coding and electronic circuit design in engineering is going to grow.
“The kinds of toys and kits becoming available could engage children and young adults in engineering technological solutions to problems at their own pace and give them the passion and confidence to pursue engineering careers.”
Kano creates kits that help children to build computers based on the original Raspberry Pi technology.
Co-founder Yonatan Raz-Fridman believes the skills fostered will do more than create tomorrow’s engineers, they will be essential for helping future artists, designers and musicians to emerge.
“I’m not sure we want to wake up in a world 100 years from now where 90pc of the people are engineers,” he says. “We want to wake up in a world where 90pc of people can interact with technology.”
Kano, which is three years old and raised $15m this year, has shipped 50,000 of its kits to date .
The idea for the company came from a six-year-old, Micah, who asked his father – the venture capitalist Saul Klein – to invent a computer he could make on his own .
Klein joined forces with his nephew Alex Klein and Raz-Fridman, and the business is now working with schools and after-school clubs in the UK and US.
Dozens more start-ups are set to enter this space in the coming months.
Tio, which lets kids build app-controlled toys, is gearing up for a Kickstarter campaign following its win at the recent Varsity Pitch, a competition from the student organisation NACUE with a £10,000 prize.
Jayne Bromfield, a British designer, is hoping to teach problem-solving and basic engineering at a much earlier age, and has developed a new product aimed at much younger children, Bildy .
Her sets consist of building boards and connectors that allow children as young as three to build and play inside colourful structures. The boards can be made into a house, castle, truck, or car.
“I created Bildy to encourage my daughters to play and learn from construction toys,” said the mother of two.
“Engineers are always portrayed as men and the toys were all targeted at boys. I don’t want to push science, technology, engineering and maths-based subjects at them but give a slow introduction in a way that’s fun.”
She is not the only entrepreneur updating Lego for a high-tech generation.
Damien Murtagh created his modular building system, Arckit, for fellow architects to build scaled models quickly and easily, but soon found that children and parents became 85pc of his market.
The 18-month-old company is selling sets in Ireland, where Murtagh is based, as well as the UK and US. “We’re still understanding the educational benefits of the product but schools are showing a lot of interest,” he says.
“This is an advancement on what kids were playing with before, and fills a gap in the market.”
This article was written by Rebecca Burn-Callander Enterprise Editor from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.