littleBits + Design Challenge = STEMtoSTEAM

By Erin Mulcahy

photo_KarenJohn Maeda, President of RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and champion of the STEMtoSTEAM Movement, says: “littleBits [Bits™ modules] are undoubtedly new elements and affordable pieces of physics.”

I am Karen Balliett and I lead Educational Strategy and Outreach for littleBits. I am a teacher and a consultant with twenty-plus years of classroom experience: kindergarten through Middle School and up through continuing education.

Last winter, littleBits invited me to a weekend workshop at Harlem School of Arts in NYC. There I observed a group of multi-aged students in lower school through high school tackle a littleBits Design Challenge: Make a Generative Art Bot. The event was sponsored by AIGA (the professional association for design.)

What I witnessed was radical and exciting. I sensed I was staring into the future of play and learning and littleBits was the conduit for that change. It was the fusion of familiar technologies to include: rubber bands, cardboard, popsicle sticks, tape, crayons and paint, combined with littleBits modular units (think Lego for the 21st C — except littleBits modules create circuits in seconds) that captured my full attention. I loved the idea that none of us could precisely predict what would be invented that day by merging electronic building blocks with arts and crafts materials.


Here was authentic, creative, open-ended challenge, and participants could dive into a process across a broad range of grade levels. Moreover, working with littleBits modules fostered problem solving with new technology that was hands-on, innovative, and fun. The activity and the Bits modules spilling across the art studio tables captured an essence of John Dewey—and there were no screens. The new technology was of the hardware, not the software variety and the challenge was active and imaginative: Make something!

Since June, I have been at work with littleBits to shape and define the company’s ‘Make something that does something’ mission and to align it with a substantive educational platform. That is how we derived: littleBits + Design Challenge = STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics).

Have you heard about and the Bipartisan STEAM Caucus? Take a look, the objectives of the STEAM Movement center on encouraging integration of Art and Design as part of the STEM equation in K-20 education.

The “A” in STEAM invites educators to consider if the skills taught through STEM are a sufficient foundation upon which to build the next generation’s achievement and a robust economy. John Maeda urges the educational community to examine: What is it that truly defines the process of innovation? What are the creative skills sets that have the potential to fuel economic growth?

My summer research on STEAM led me to attend two STEAM Camps for Educators (I highly recommend it—they are cropping up around the country) and I had the pleasure of meeting with John Maeda up at RISD. John has known Ayah Bdeir, engineer, interactive artist, founder and CEO of littleBits since he was a professor at MIT and Ayah was a graduate student at the Media Lab. Ayah Bdeir has been a leader in the effort to shape a community-driven definition for Open Source Hardware. John Maeda is a visionary in the field of education. He is a graphic designer, a computer scientist, an academic and an author who champions this STEMtoSTEAM movement that extends an unusually inclusive invitation to educators across the whole of the critical continuum: kindergarten through college.

John validates the notion that inside the classroom, littleBits can be understood as an adaptive STEAM resource. He offered: “Bits modules are good parts from an engineering POV. They provide an opportunity to explore the electrical physical and the electro-magnetic world and to get into the joy of building instantly.”


littleBits makes open hardware that is accessible for designers, students, tinkerers and Makers all around the world. littleBits sparks curiosity and heightens awareness of electronics and their proliferation in our everyday lives. This is a relevant dynamic to explore with students beginning in Lower School.

STEAM is a clarion call to remind us how and why fostering creativity is an essential component of teaching and learning.

Educators: littleBits encourages you to routinely visit our newly designed Education Page (coming soon!) on the littleBits website. We aim to make this a creative, open-source STEAM resource space for you to share your 21st C innovations which combine littleBits + Design Challenge to equal STEMtoSTEAM.

FYI:  A MakerFaire, a Fab Lab, a Makerspace may be coming soon to a public library, a museum and a secondary education school near you. Stay tuned for my next blog about the Maker Movement, our newly designed Education page and more…Education Day at MakerFaire NYC begins 9/19/2013.

“The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.” Ancient  Proverb

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Above: Don Buckley, Karen Blumberg and James Karb creating and making at the littleBits Educator Discovery Workshop.


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