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Invention kit takes tech design to kids

PicoCricket Kit lets tomorrow's young inventors fuse engineering with art, music and other creative fields.

Playful Invention Co., a child-oriented tech start-up, was warned that "gender-neutral robotics set" was an oxymoron--but the company is hoping to challenge that notion with its new PicoCricket Kit.

The PicoCricket Kit centers on a small device, appropriately called the PicoCricket. The tiny computer can be attached to all sorts of building blocks, sensors, motors and lights; connected via USB or serial cable to a Mac or PC; and programmed with a piece of software called PicoBlocks.

Playful Invention Co. (Pico) is promoting the new toy as a way for children--the intended audience is 9 and older--to use technology to explore art, music and other creative fields. Kids can design light-up lamps, motorized toys, stuffed animals that make noise when patted, and other inventions.

Pico and the PicoCricket Kit arose out of a collaboration between Lego and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory, the team responsible for Lego's MindStorms robotics kit line. Like MindStorms, PicoCricket fuses plastic building blocks with electronic sensors, output devices and controller software. But according to Mitchel Resnick, an MIT professor who has worked on both projects, PicoCricket aims to reach out to kids who might be interested in something other than building robots.

"We decided we'd like to create more entry paths to allow kids with a wide variety of different interests to be able to engage in what we think are important activities for getting involved in science, math and engineering," Resnick said in an interview.

Many of those excited about the PicoCricket Kit are enthused about its potential to interest young girls in computers and engineering.

"When I asked my friend's 10-year-old daughter last year if she wanted a Lego Mindstorms set for Christmas, she wrinkled her nose and said, 'Aren't those for boys?'" related Mia Kim, who writes for female tech blog Popgadget. According to Kim, the PicoCricket Kit's biggest advantage may be that it's "techy but doesn't seem like it," a potential draw for girls who think building sets and robots are too much of a boy thing.

"It's more about the old, traditional rules of craft-building: fun, whimsical, totally customized toys and trinkets," she explained. "I think the softer sell of technology is really important at getting young girls interested in these types of things."

But, as Resnick insisted, the PicoCricket Kit isn't meant to be just a girl thing. Instead, it's designed for both girls and boys who could be interested in computers and electronics, but just don't know it yet. "(We wanted) to broaden participation to a wider range of learners," he said. "We knew that lots of kids are interested in art and music, so we wanted to make sure that there were lots of ways for them to be able to use art and music as an entry point to explore math, science and engineering."

A PicoCricket Kit retails for $250. The PicoBlocks software, essential to programming the device, is compatible with Mac OS X 10.2 and up, but it doesn't yet work on newer Intel-based Macs.