Tom Lauwers believes every student, no matter their age, deserves equal access to coding and computation training and the materials to build a robot. It should be as easy as going to the library to check out a book.

His company, BirdBrain Technologies which is working out of StartUptown, is making this happen. In 2014, the company loaned hundreds of Finch robot kits to underserved school districts across the country, providing robotic training to more than 15,000 students. Liking what they saw, Google’s Chicago office bought and donated 500 Finches to the Chicago Public Library. BirdBrain chipped in with a donation of 48 bots to the Carnegie Public Library in Pittsburgh.

This year the founder and chief roboticist is expanding the loaner program to reach an even wider audience, some 20,000 students in schools and libraries across the country and around the world. The program is leveling the field by offering students in underserved neighborhoods access to robotic activities that are both engaging and fun.

The Finch is a preassembled bot that looks like a beady-eyed stingray. It fits easily in the palm of your hand. The platform works with 15 different languages and uses programs like SCRATCH, the popular educational platform that teaches novice students to code. The activities take 30 minutes to several hours to complete and are designed to be accessible to anyone, from novice programmers to the more advanced.

“It was created as a fun tool to learn programming and computer science,” Lauwers says. “It teaches students how to write codes for a physical robot through lessons and activities.”

How does the loan work? Schools and libraries apply and receive the bots as an outright loan. The sets travel to each location for a month, with a shipping label, then are sent on to the next school. The kit offers access to robotic training to schools that otherwise couldn’t afford the cost of the program.

“The idea is to spark interest in computer science and give teachers a tool so they can work with and understand the system,” he says. “By making a large loan, the whole school is required to get involved in some way. Principals and parents are more likely to take notice.”

The Hummingbird Duo

If BirdBrain isn’t busy enough, it’s also rolling out a next generation version of its robot kit this year. The new Hummingbird Duo gives students from elementary to high school the tools to build their own bots using prepackaged components.

The biggest difference in the new version is the Duo has an “arduino capability,” Lauwers explains. That’s Italian for an electronics kit that allows students to engage in building their own bots.

“By merging the original Hummingbird with the arduino, we’ve unlocked advanced ways to use it,” he says. “Essentially a fourth grader can pick it up without having had any experience, yet a high schooler can also benefit. From a classroom perspective, it allows for differentiated instruction which is very helpful.”

Ultimately Lauwers would love to see older students in the program work with the younger students in the program as a way to expand the knowledge base around the activities.

“As an engineer, I get to scratch all these issues,” Lauwers adds. “I’m shooting for a product that works with a wide range of ages and experience.”

Lauwers developed the bot programs at CMU’s CREATE Lab. Applications are now being accepted for the loan program.

This story is underwritten by the Grable Foundation as part of the Remake Learning Initiative, in partnership with WQED, WESA and Pittsburgh Magazine.  See all the Remake Learning stories in NEXTpittsburgh.

Remake-Learning_logo_color 180 x 60

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared in Fast Company, Ozy and Pittsburgh Magazine.