Today’s toys, tomorrow’s school books
The hundreds of toys kids used to receive on their special occasions (many of which remain unused) might get replaced one day with customized do-it-yourself toys.
Taking note of this, Lebanese entrepreneurs Ibrahim Ezzedine and Basel Jalaleddine, noticed that kids get bored quickly and move on to the next toy. So they created Cherpa, a software that allows kids, teens, and adults, to create gaming themes using basic coding tools and connect them with robots and other hardware kits found in local stores.
Still in its beta phase, Cherpa has over 100 testers, between gamers, developers and ambassadors from six different countries: Portugal, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, USA, and Kuwait.
Cherpa’s first testing phase was B2C. Users may buy any hardware kit, or an Arduino board (an open-source platform used to write and upload computer code to the physical board) from local tech stores, and sign up to Cherpa to use the software and connect both devices. On the platform, they can find an AI assistant, a chatbot that answers questions related to how the device can be connected, what is a connector, a resistor, a microcontroller, et cetera.
Their second phase will be B2B: The founders are working on developing a full 30-hour curriculum for robotics, for teenagers between 12 and 18 years, with an aim to integrate this in schools.
The course will help kids learn robotics through a real life mission in three themes: Smart cities, astronomy, and car manufacturing. Parents and trainers will be able to create a virtual smart city and add missions to teens, such as asking them to light up the streets at night. The missions can be easily created and don’t require a coding background. When teens start writing codes, they will instantly see the changes reflecting on the software. Parents can buy different hardware kits, some might include sensors, buzzers, thermometers, et cetera.
The curriculum will be launched this February in several schools in Lebanon. “We are in talks with schools. We want each school to have a club to teach robotics or integrate the course in their curriculum. We also want the trainers to monitor the students, create themes, and teach them,” said Jalaleddine. They are planning on training the trainers on how to use the software and create new missions.
The toys of the future
In 2007, the total revenue of the global toy market was $78 billion. In 2015, it reached $87 billion. This multi-billion dollar industry has been dominated for years by big players such as Lego, Mattel, and Namco Bandai.
These big players are taking note about the emergence of tech within the toys industry. Lego Mindstorms’ hardware platform for instance, produces programmable robots, allowing kids to build robots using Lego building blocks and control them. Its Lego Boost product is another robot that kids can code and program using a mobile app.
Unlike cartoons and ready-made toys, today’s new gadgets will help kids develop computer-enhanced skills and absorb faster, thanks to their active-learning nature.
Among the three trends transforming the energy sector, the World Bank emphasized on digital disruption, which will create new opportunities to the world’s economies. And while teaching coding is only part of this disruption, it is the fuel needed to change mentalities and involve youth in building a sustainable environment. Investing in integrating such knowledge in schools will result in high return on the economy, especially in Gulf countries that are looking to create alternative sources of income rather than depending on oil.
To prepare youngsters to lead future economies, the change must start from a very early stage. If today’s kids spend their time programming a robot and command it to push the light button in a room, or add a sensor that allows it to measure the temperature in a room, those same kids would be able in the future, to program a robot to solve more serious-life problems. For this to happen effectively, it needs to encourage problem solving and collective working in schools.
An extract from a study published on Harvard Business Review just proves this point. “With the world becoming increasingly digital, computer science is as vital in the arts and sciences as writing and math are. Whether a person chooses to become a computer scientist or not, coding is something that will help a person do more in whatever field they choose. That’s why we believe a basic computer programming course should be required at the ninth grade level.”
Perhaps this is why the Cherpa cofounders decided to shift their business model to B2B and target schools.
Before they graduated from the Lebanese American University, Cherpa was just a final-year project the two worked on. After graduation, they applied to Speed accelerator in Lebanon and won their SeedBoost competition in 2017. They have also won the Best Youth award during GITEX in Dubai and joined the Blackbox Connect program in Silicon Valley in 2017, through LebNet Ignite, a Lebanese program designed to integrate Lebanese startup founders in the Silicon Valley culture.
Toys are just a tool
As I discussed in a previous piece on Wamda, in the last couple of years, numerous teaching and educational tools have emerged, be it through online educational courses (MOOCs) or robotic kits such as littleBits and The Little Engineer.
Interestingly, private initiatives and local competitions are no longer complementing the old academic curriculum when it comes to preparing kids to the real world. Instead, they are now becoming ‘the’ curriculum that schools need to integrate and follow to stay advanced, and relevant.
New York-based littleBits works directly with around 10,000 schools and with about 20,000 schools that their distributors work with, according to Lebanese Canadian founder, Ayah Bdeir. “We will continue to focus on education, in the classroom and outside. The impact we are seeing is really encouraging and our goal is to continue to expand topics and content and reach.”
Change is coming, slowly but surely. Just a quick look at the figures published by nonprofit organization Code.org show an increase in the number of countries adopting computer science as part of their school curriculum.
“[Since three years and a half], 11 countries, 31 U.S. states, and over 120 U.S. cities and school districts have announced efforts to expand access to computer science as part of the K-12 curriculum; the new Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science Principles course has launched in over 2,000 classrooms; over 50,000 U.S. teachers have attended workshops to begin teaching computer science; over 500,000 teachers globally have begun teaching computer science classes to over 16 million students; diversity in computer science classrooms has improved for two years in a row,” Code.org’s annual report revealed.