Innovation

Inside Bitsbox's quest to keep kids coding using the US Postal Service

Bitsbox aims to keep kids coding through the shipment of coding projects every month, via snail mail.

bitsbox1.jpg
Image: Bitsbox

Scott Lininger and Aidan Chopra had barely put a foot outside the door when Lininger turned to Chopra and said, "I'm quitting and I want you to quit too."

The two were Googlers, working on SketchUp for nearly a decade. Lininger had been working on a idea though, for a product to teach kids to code — an idea that's now Bitsbox.

Bitsbox is a monthly subscription service. For $30 a month, kids will get in the mail a box filled with items like stickers, trading a cards, a small toy, most importantly, an activity book with apps kids can build and modify (along with a parents' guide).

Kids pick an app to build, and copy the code into the Bitsbox website. The site gives them a QR code and using the code, they can pull up the app on a mobile device.

They'll also have the ability to change the look of the apps they create. For example, the controls for a game called Pig Herder, are actually the same as a game called Rocket Girl. Kids can use Bitsbox's library of audio files and images to turn a pen into space, and a pig into a girl, if that's what they want to do.

And to help accomplish all this, Chopra and Lininger launched a Kickstarter campaign. They started out trying to raise $45,000 and with just a few more days to go as this article is being published, have raised more than $165,000.

Thinking inside the box

In the realm of teaching kids to code, there are a few couple problems Bitsbox wants to address. First, there's the challenge of keeping kids engaged.

"There are some great systems out there for teaching kids to code, and we've got a great system for teaching kids to code, but none of it matters a lick if they just do it for an hour and then wander away," Chopra said.

The problem wasn't just building a product that kids would like to use, it was about cutting through all the other noise and bringing them back to the practice of coding.

Second, there's often not a next step for kids who play very basic coding game — kids who are old enough to read and type, but not necessarily get into full-on programming syntax, Chopra said.

"We realized there was this perfect relationship between that and reading natural human language, where you don't start kids reading War and Peace, they read Dick and Jane... and they learn little words, and they repeat those words over and over."

That repetition is an element of Bitsbox that Chopra said this has roots in the way Scott learned to program.

Around 1983 or 1984, Lininger's dad brought home a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer for his kids.

"Back then the computers came with books that taught you how to program," Chopra said "which is amazing, imagine that your phone did that now."

So, Lininger spent months teaching himself to program by copying code out of the manual.

"Kids gain mastery and build confidence by doing that same thing over and over, and I think as a society we've gotten allergic to that type of teaching... but there are certain things you learn really well by seeing them over and over again," Chopra said.

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Image: Bitsbox

On Chopra and Lininger's end, they've set up dashboards on the site to help them track which apps get built, and even line by line, what kids are having trouble with.

Since its initial inception, Bitsbox has seen a few reinventions. Early on, Lininger thought of creating a big book that kids could get and copy code out of, onto the Bitsbox website. That wasn't really a long term business model, though.

At another point, they considered creating something like a magazine.

Lininger and Chopra, both being parents, came to conclusion that one of the things that gets kids excited is not only having something physical, but having a measure of surprise

"It's about getting something that you didn't expect, maybe even when you didn't expect it, and I don't think it's cheating to say that's something we can really leverage to help kids learn something they want to learn," Chopra said.

It also turns out you can't legally email a child, but you can mail them a box.

Along the way, they also got help working on their business plan, not just the product, from Boulder, Colorado startup accelerator Boomtown.

The first round of Bitsbox boxes go out in April. In the future, they'd like to make available the apps in various forms, either by posting the older apps online or producing a "best of" book every year. Part of the idea here is to teach any kid who wants to learn, not just those whose parents can afford the price point.

"There's really no reason, after that stuff's been out for a month or two, not to put it where anybody can download it," he said.

And perhaps down the line, they'll settle on the right way for them to offer Bitsbox to schools.

After the Kickstarter closes, pre-orders will still be available on the Bitsbox website.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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