I was paralyzed. I had never felt this complete and utter helplessness before in my life as I lay there, listening to my friend trying to negotiate a ride to an airstrip to get me out of the remote village in Ghana where I had just been diagnosed with cerebral malaria. The only thought that was going through my head was “I just don’t want to die here.”
I came to America from Ukraine with my mom when I was 9, and like many immigrant parents, she persistently encouraged me to pursue the medical profession. I completed biology summer camps in Missouri, attended a Math and Science Academy in Texas, and did research at Princeton and Oxford. Yet growing up I always remember helping my grandfather fix everything from broken toilets, to our living room light (by jerry-rigging homemade christmas lights) when the power would go out in post-Soviet Ukraine. In school I was fascinated (and a little jealous) by the things engineers would build for their class projects, but being a biology major, these things were not part of my course work.
In my junior year I got a scholarship to pursue a global health project, and wanted to use the money to make an impact on kids’ health in underdeveloped places. I devised a project that would measure the impact of games on teaching kids healthy practices in rural Ghana, and somehow while I was instilling good health habits in kids, I myself ended up sick. Over the course of a week, my condition got worse, until I couldn’t even get out of bed anymore. My hosts did not have a car to drive me 5 hours to the nearest hospital in the city. Doctors in America said over the phone that I had contracted cerebral malaria. And I spent half a day in a semi-conscious state, contemplating whether I would actually be alive in the matter of a few hours. The chances of me falling into a coma were at 40% unless I was immediately evacuated, they said. I felt completely helpless.
Laying there, this realization begin nagging at me — I might die, and I hadn’t built anything that I was really proud of. In my last few years, I had memorized facts for exams, shown up to meetings, done research for others, and written essays and applications. But as I started thinking back, I realized by happiest times were as a kid, building and playing and creating with my grandfather. I wanted that to be my mark on the world. I couldn’t die without having built something of value for other people — before I had created something tangible to show for my time alive. In that moment, I made a promise to myself that if I ever left Ghana, I would do whatever it took to learn engineering and build something.
Miraculously, a car that was going to the city made a stop at the village in the middle of the night and they were able to make room to take me to the city, where I was evacuated on an air ambulance. Thankfully I recovered fully, and right away got started with building and learning and teaching myself about electronics and technology. And the more I learned, the more I wanted everyone around me to learn as well. The Raspberry Pi had just been released, and I wanted to get the cheap microchip into the hands of the kids like those I had been teaching in Ghana, kids who might have no other chances to play and interact with technology. Although my mom thought I was wasting my time on building cheap computers instead of doing my senior thesis research, I saw this project as a way to make sure as many kids as possible would have the building and tinkering experience I wish I had when growing up.
I created my first Piper kit with a Raspberry Pi, a screen, a battery pack and some off-the-shelf electronics. I secured a partnership with a school for orphans in Kenya to begin pilot testing by the time I graduated.
That summer, I took an internship at the National Institutes of Health to continue my biology research, when I met Shree Bose, a fellow summer intern, at shuttle stop. As we got to talking and I mentioned my own journey of teaching myself engineering, I could see her interest piqued. She mentioned that she, as the Grand Prize winner of the first Google Global Science Fair, had spoken at TED conferences and venues around the world to student who, she mentioned, had often run into roadblocks when trying to get started with engineering and technology building. As an advocate for STEM education, her vision for the Piper kits I had was much broader. She saw them as a tool for students in schools around America, and we promptly got started by taking a few of the kits to middle schools in Atlanta and Ohio to see what kids thought. Those initial few pilots taught us the two mantras of Piper — 1) kids love Minecraft, and 2) kids don’t want to be told what to do. As we worked to refine and iterate our platform into something kids all over the world would want to play, we created something that was easy to use, and after testing with over 400 kids of all ages all over the world, we’ve developed the current version of Piper, a toolbox that gets kids building electronics through playing Minecraft.
The kit itself comes with a wooden box that you have to build yourself and personalize. With virtually no instructions, you learn through trial and error, really learning the core concepts of building. Once you’ve assembled the box, and connected the raspberry pi to the screen and battery pack by color-matching the wires, you are sitting at mission control of a modified Minecraft world and launching a buggy robot into space to rescue astronauts stuck on a dangerous planet.
To control the robot in a hostile terrain, you have to build your own controller with buttons on a breadboard, and virtual Minecraft representations of the physical pieces in front of you give you feedback once you have completed circuits correctly. As you move through the levels, you overcome virtual challenges by building physical hardware (switches, lights, sensors), to your robot and learn fundamentals of engineering.
We joined the educational games incubator, co.lab, in San Francisco and have been working with game developers and engineers at Zynga to finalize our game as well as user experience and design, and to get Piper into the hands of as many kids around world as possible, we launched on Kickstarter on March 2nd. As for me, I know even today, my mom will ask when I am going to apply to medical school and get back into science. But I’m doing something I love. I’m empowering students with the tools to build with technology. I’m creating something that inspires a generation of kids to be inventors and engineers. And for me, right now, that is a more urgent calling.