As the technological world draws ever closer, hardware and software merge slowly and subtly with the stuff of daily life. For the next generation of mathematicians, engineers, doctors, farmers, bankers, and entrepreneurs developing basic technological competencies will be as fundamental as math and science.
But what about the artists? What about the dreamers and the dancers, the sculptors, the ceramicists, the poets and the potters? The truth is, art and technology have gone hand and hand for as long as humans dared to dream of a bigger world and possibilities that hover just at the edge of our capabilities. Technology-based art is not a modern phenomena, but the technologies available to the contemporary artist are unlike anything we have seen before.
For some, negotiating these new skill sets will be as simple as picking up a brush or getting in with a stone and a chisel, for everyone else there’s Awesome Shield. Awesome Shield is a new startup dedicated to teaching dreamers to harness the power of code and bring their visions to life. Unlike other coding schools that offer platforms to develop a purely digital skill-set, Awesome Shield teaches future inventors to code for hardware — to manipulate the objects in the physical world through technological means.
A few short weeks ago the team at Awesome Shield answered a few questions about what it means to teach coding to makers before heading off to Maker Faire Rome, where they brought coding to the masses and returned to to tell the tale in an exclusive report for “Digicult”.
From the Desk of Awesome Shield Co-Founder Jonathan Amar: “This was our second year at Maker Faire Rome. Last year we learned our first lesson about the dos and don’ts of international maker fairs before we even touched down in Italy — in fact, we almost didn’t make it to the 2015 fair at all after a nasty tussle with those EasyJet baggage restrictions and a tumultuous trip through security. This year, we arrived at the airport bright and early — with carefully weighted bags. Security was a breeze, and after a brief flight we touched down in Rome and rushed directly to the venue to setup”.
The Maker Faire in Rome is one of the biggest in the world, and all of the setup for this massive undertaking gets underway just days before the fair, so even before the doors open there is a steady stream of makers putting in work.
This year’s venue was absolutely massive, so even making it to our booth was something of a challenge. Last year, Maker Faire Rome was held on a University campus, and everyone was packed tightly into giant tents, but this year Maker Faire was held at Fiera di Roma – a palatial conference center with six individual halls, each as big as an aircraft hanger. Our booth was right between the booths for Arduino and Google, so we were feeling the pressure.
With only one short day to bring a booth to life, we spent that first afternoon designing a space where kids would have the opportunity to work with the Awesome Shield and get excited about bring art, science, and math to life with code. The idea was to create a space where anything is possible, and exploring those possibilities is just plain fun.
Perhaps our greatest (and most popular) innovation was a basketball net that used the Awesome Shield to keep score as makers young and old tested there skill at the net — the crowd loved it… until we lost our basketball. Luckily for us, the maker community is teeming with generous and creative problem solvers, like the team at the booth next door — Alligator Board 3D — who offered to 3D print us a new basketball. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, including an incredibly generous security guard who kept the lights on as long as possible, the fair had to close with 5 minutes of printing left to go.
The machine was going so fast it nearly tore itself apart, and we worried that we might ruin the 3D printer, but the Alligator Board team explained that the parts of printer working overtime had actually been 3D printed themselves, which made them easily replaceable. The world of Maker Faire offers such a totally different way to conceive of physical objects, replaceability, and manufacturing; sometimes it’s incredible just to have an opportunity to contemplate the brave new world we live in….although having a 3D printed basketball and a great story to tell isn’t half bad either.
Great stories lurked around every corner at Maker Faire Rome — day in and day out we met kids who were scared of coding, who thought this kind of technology just wasn’t designed for them. Getting to sit and chat and code with these kids, to hear their ideas and bring them to life, to watch their eyes light up as they mastered one challenge after another — it may seem cliche to talk about now, but the experience of meeting these kids was nothing short of inspiring.
After two straight days in the same Awesome Shield T-Shirts, after hours of coding, hundreds of jump shots, and no shortage of pizza, we made it to the last day of Maker Faire Rome and the last day at Maker Faire is always the most fun. Everyone is in a groove, missions have been accomplished, and all the teams that have been so busy in their own booths that they’ve forgotten to explore the faire venture out and make friends. As the day winds down and the crowds slowly peter out, a new kind of peace and tranquility sets in.
And just like that, it was all over. By Monday morning, we were back in a small apartment in the heart of Rome, reliving the glory of three days in the “Makerverse”. We estimated that in 72 hours time more than 10,000 people visited the Awesome Shield booth, hundreds of stickers were handed out, and hundreds of kids learned to code for the very first time. In five or ten years, who knows what these kids will be up to.
Hannah Nelson Teutsch: So, to begin with just the most basic question — what is Awesome Shield? What have you guys created here?
Awesome Shield: Awesome Shield is a piece of hardware and an online learning platform that teaches kids to code and invent. We do this using a combination of online videos, a simple computer called an Arduino, and hardware that interacts with the real word through buttons, lights, and sensors. Kids learn by building projects with code and electronics. They use those projects to understand the math and science that make up our world and bring their dreams to life.
Hannah Nelson Teutsch: Who is Awesome Shield for?
Awesome Shield: Awesome Shield is for kids aged 10 to 110. The truth is, it’s for anyone.
Hannah Nelson Teutsch: How did Awesome Shield get its start?
Awesome Shield: Awesome Shield’s roots are actually in another startup that our team worked on beforehand. We were building technology to help craft beer brewers automate some of their work. In prototyping lots of different designs with hardware, and code, we ended up developing a simple piece of hardware that made it easy to prototype complex systems. At a certain point we realized that we had created simplified code and hardware system that could be used to build an incredible range of projects, and that this would be a great place for new programmers to start. We stopped working on brewing gear, and started Awesome Shield.
Hannah Nelson Teutsch: Do you consider yourselves artists, engineers, coders, or mathematicians? How do you fit into this space as individuals and as a company?
Awesome Shield: We all brought different skills to the table. Chris was a chemical engineer, Jon was a UX Designer, and Sebastian was a Developer. In building Awesome Shield we’ve all had to do a bunch of different things at any given moment – from understanding the legalities of starting a business in Germany, to learning how to teach. Awesome Shield is nothing if not a team effort.
Hannah Nelson Teutsch: What is your favorite thing you’ve ever done with an Awesome Shield?
Awesome Shield: When we launched our Kickstarter campaign, we created an Awesome Shield invention to press the ‘go’ button for us. We had been working up to the launch of this campaign for ages. We’d made prototype after prototype, done loads of testing, got feedback from as many people as we could, and meticulously honed our campaign page. We wanted to mark the occasion of the launch, and we did it with an Awesome Shield invention — it was pure magic.
Hannah Nelson Teutsch: What is your goal for the Awesome Shield?
Awesome Shield: We want to empower kids to understand technology. For so many dreamers, code and electronics are a black box — they can seem intimidating, and out of reach. We want to show kids that they can not only understand technology, they can actually build things with it themselves. Technology is a fundamental part of our world, and we want to help kids understand and shape it.
Hannah Nelson Teutsch: How do you three work together as a team? What is life like inside a startup dedicated to Science, Art, Technology and Math — do you spend more of your time coding or crafting?
Awesome Shield: Awesome Shield blurs the lines between coding and crafting. When you code for the physical world coding and crafting happen together. Invention frequently involve coding, crafting, science, art, and tech. The label Makers fits our team more than any other. We’re always working across many disciplines, and we’re constantly learning new things.
Hannah Nelson Teutsch: Why do you bring Awesome Shield to Maker Faire Rome? What’s so special about the maker community, and how does Awesome Shield fit into this space?
Awesome Shield: Our goals are perfectly aligned. Makers are basically inventors. We like to think of ourselves as making the next generation of makers. It’s also really inspiring for us to be there. The Maker community is such a wonderful combination of passionate, quirky people who are pursuing their interests and making their ideas come to life. It’s a really broad and inclusive term that encompasses such a large number of things from high to low tech. That’s the spirit of invention we so love and it’s such a treat to get to be a part of that community.
Hannah Nelson Teutsch: When you get the Awesome Shield into the hands of makers in Rome, what is the most exciting aspect of that interaction?
Awesome Shield: There’s this moment when someone who didn’t think they’d ever be able to code writes their first line and turns on that LED – they’re just so amazed with themselves and so excited. Having just come back from Maker Faire and having seen it dozens of times in our booth – it’s really just so emotional. People’s capacities are so huge and we you can help someone unlock even a small part of that, it’s a really special thing to get to be a part of.
Hannah Nelson Teutsch: Where do you see the first generation of Awesome Shield coders in ten years, what will these kids be doing with their lives a decade from now?
Awesome Shield: We hope that every kid who tries Awesome Shield will see coding, electronics, science, art and math as things that they can do. With that understanding and confidence, where kids go is entirely up to them. Some of them will become makers and inventors. Some will become artists, scientists, or engineers. Some of them will never write another line of code again. But they will always see the world as a place where they can create in any way that they want.