One of the things that struck me at the World Maker Faire was how many companies are trying to reinvent or improve on older projects, especially in the STEM/learning sector.
More years ago than I care to remember, I had Erector Sets, chemistry sets, and electronic experiment sets. Although they would be considered primitive by today's standards, they achieved their purpose - which was to engage and inspire young kids to get involved with technology through experimentation.
I built cars, tanks, cranes, and even a very crude walking robot. I also managed, somehow, to totally evacuate the house doing a chemistry experiment that involved heating sulphur in a spoon over a candle to see how it turned into a liquid. My parents weren't pleased, and I'm sure it took a lot of work before my mother was able to rid the house of the burnt rotten egg smell.
The electronic experiment set was the most intriguing and had the most lasting impact by far, even though the set was just a few dozen components arrayed on a thick board with springs for contacts, some jumper wires, and a very cheap headset. I remember putting together a simple burglar alarm, a light sensor, a Morse code key, and a crystal radio.
That experience triggered my interest so much that I started making regular visits to the library checking out back issues of magazines and books on electronic circuits. And I would collect old radios, TVs, and other gear to disassemble so that I could use the components to hack together some of the more interesting circuits I discovered in the books.
There were no electronics classes or clubs in my junior high school and later in my high school, though they did have wood and metal shop classes. So, using library books and magazines I taught myself whatever I needed to learn to put together the devices I wanted to make.
I'm not bragging, and I'm not suggesting that kids today should be forced to go through the same process. It was difficult, often frustrating, and there were many times when I almost gave up completely because I either couldn't understand something and there was no one around to help, or because the parts I needed just weren't available - or cost way to much for my limited allowance.
At the same time, I think we may be doing young kids a disservice by making things way too easy for them. When we simplify the learning process, and we try to remove any frustration or stress, then then we are 'dumbing down' the process - degrading the value that it gives to the student learner.
So many of the STEM type systems I've seen try to design out any difficulty or challenge out of the process. They often treat a project as if it was assembling furniture from IKEA dressed up with a bit of science or engineering.
Electronic and robot kits become niche market video game clones focused on instant gratification. "Plug this into that; connect this; turn on the battery; and you've created a functioning robot!"
But, actually, you haven't 'created' or designed anything. You've just followed instructions like a robot.
The challenge is to create learning systems that not only reward and provide satisfaction but also force the student to create - to stress their mental muscles - and to solve problems in ways that they didn't already know.
Some of the systems out there do a fairly good job at it while others fail miserably. All of them, including the most well known systems, still have a lot of room for improvement - at least in my opinion.