Whether it is developing small-scale educational projects or creating a robot, they say that putting programming and robotics into an educational environment requires major financial investment. But Brazilian entrepreneur Claudio Olmedo wants to change such thinking. A supporter of free hardware and an activist in the maker movement, he has helped to develop a low-cost electronic board that allows users to take their first steps in robotics for just one dollar.
Christened the One Dollar Board, the board is the size of a credit card and comes with an instruction manual imprinted within it. In just a few steps, students can perform simple exercises to learn programming logic and even construct simple automation projects.
The development of the board began during the eighth edition of Campus Party in São Paulo in 2015. Used to giving talks on free hardware and maker culture, Claudio had the idea of distributing samples of electronic boards to participants during the event.
While free software activists can share links so that people can easily test programs or operating systems, Claudio was aware of the difficulties of presenting a physical object in the same way. As a founder of the Centro Maker (Maker Center) company, which specializes in manufacturing electronic items for makers, setting some boards aside for free distribution seemed an obvious solution. “That’s when one of my colleagues pointed out that I’d taken almost R$10,000 worth of boards to give away as gifts,” recalls Claudio.
Anxious to avoid putting his company out of business, but still keen on spreading the word about the movement, Claudio had the idea of creating an extremely low-cost board for the event. He started by reversing the creative process, thinking about what adaptations he had to make so that the electronic board could be sold for one dollar, while still retaining the basic features necessary to begin the study of robotics and programming.
When you hold a workshop to put together a robot with the kids, they get pretty excited, but then they have to take the robot apart because the board is so expensive
Once the first drafts of the design were ready, volunteers soon got interested in the idea of popularizing access to this resource. “Usually when you hold a workshop to put together a robot with the kids, they get pretty excited, but then they have to take the robot apart because the board is so expensive,” says Claudio, explaining that a basic electronic board can cost between R$70 and R$80 in Brazil.
In the months that followed, many volunteers offered to help with the development of the board, but the lack of time they had available made progress difficult. When the developers managed to incubate the project in the Parque Tecnológico de Itaipu (Itaipu Technology Park) in Paraná, however, the initiative began to pick up speed. “We created a more sustainable business model, based on the idea of a business with a social impact,” explains Claudio.
The low price meant making some structural adjustments, such as removing the external connector and allowing the plate itself to be plugged into a USB port to be configured. Large-scale production in China also helped to reduce the price and offer logistic support for the distribution of the board to many countries.
To test the reaction to the project, the One Dollar Board applied to both Brazilian and international crowdfunding projects. Almost R$4,000 was raised via Catharsis, one of the leading Brazilian platforms, while a campaign on Indiegogo raised more than US $6.674 and included contributions from several countries, such as Germany and the United States.
While the board undergoes further improvements, Claudio says that the One Dollar Board project is concentrating its efforts on strategies to get into Brazilian schools. “We are also creating a low-cost robot. When you talk to school principals about low-cost boards to teach electronic programming, they look at you and ask what it’s for,” explains Claudio.
Our dream is for students to have programming classes, just like they have classes about the hypotenuse
To popularize the teaching of robotics and programming in schools, he says it is important to invest in teaching materials and training strategies for teachers. “Our dream is for students to have programming classes, just like they have classes about the hypotenuse. We need to find a way for math teachers to apply it in their classes, and history teachers to use it in their classes,” says Claudio, who is currently participating in the Start-Ed Lab program of the Fundação Lemann, which accelerates startups in the area of education.
As a solution to the challenge of providing educational support materials, they plan to create an online platform that brings together content and tutorials to develop programming, electronics and robotics activities. In the coming months, a pilot project will begin to be tested in some Brazilian private and public schools.
According to Claudio, the teaching of robotics and programming in schools will be vital in helping developing countries prepare for the fourth industrial revolution, which encompasses processes such as automation, artificial intelligence, cloud computing and nanotechnology. “A Cisco survey says that humanity will generate US $19 trillion during the fourth industrial revolution,” says Claudio. However, he says it is important to create conditions so that children can innovate and develop products. “We export a lot of coffee, but our profit margin is very low. Starbucks, meanwhile, sells the coffee experience,” he says, as an example of aggregate value.
* Translated by James Young