A near-death experience led Mark Pavlyukovskyy, cofounder of Piper, to create a much-lauded DIY computer kit to teach children about technology.

Pavlyukovskyy was born in the Ukraine, and when he came to the US he began looking for ways to empower children in the ways that he and his friends in his home country were not empowered.

“I went down the biology medicine route for a while. I did this program in Africa where I was teaching kids about health, how to improve their health…I actually got sick myself doing it, and I almost died. That was a turning point where I realized the impact I want to have should be scalable and done through modern tools and involve programming or electronics,” Pavlyukovskyy said.

“I started building websites and different gadgets to help people, and I realized I could make an even bigger

impact if I gave kids the tools to build something themselves,” he said.

While Pavlyukovskyy was working on his Ph.D. at the University of Oxford, he was also busy building computer kits in his dorm room to send to children around the world. “The idea was to give kids all the parts to a computer, and they assemble it kind of like LEGO. The simple mechanics of assembling a computer could give them that feeling of empowerment that they can build a computer,” he said.

The eventual result of his work was the Piper DIY electronic kit with a Minecraft theme, since so many kids love Minecraft. The computer is housed in a wooden box, since wood is a cornerstone of the Minecraft experience. Once a child assembles the computer, using the blueprints that are included, they have a Minecraft game on the computer screen, with a storyline about a robot heading to Mars to try to stop an asteroid from hitting Earth. As children plug in wires and assemble the controller, they are able to move the robot in the game, he explained.

More than 3,000 kits have been sold, at $299 each, and the target audience is children ages 7 to 12, although children as young as 6 have successfully used it. It's received rave reviews from everyone such as Elon Musk, who gave the kit to his children, to Steve Wozniak, who said, “I love Piper because it represents what enabled me to do all the great technology things in my life.”

Image: Piper

The Piper computer kit comes with everything needed to assemble a computer, including a Raspberry Pi 3 microcomputer, an HD LCD display, a powerbank, a speaker, and a puzzle-like wooden case that is assembled and then houses the computer. Turning the computer on reveals the PiperCraft learning system that teaches kids engineering and programming through a combination of a storyline, physical building, and Minecraft gameplay. The core Piper experience seamlessly introduces engineering, electronics, and programming, allowing kids to create and program their own electronic gadgets through a custom Minecraft story mode.

Piper just received seed funding of $2.1 million to bring the product to more children and to provide it to classrooms. The funding came from investors including Princeton University, Reach Capital, 500 Startups, FoundersXFund, Jaan Tallinn (cofounder of Skype), and Jay Silver (founder of Makey Makey).

“We found that teachers were purchasing it on their own,” Pavlyukovskyy said, which spurred him to realize that the product needed to tie it into Common Core standards for wider distribution.

The goal was to make Piper accessible for teachers and the classroom, and the new funding will make this possible through PiperEDU, which is what Piper has named the product they're developing strictly for schools, and which gives a hands-on approach to STEM education.

“Thousands of kids are already playing and building with Piper all over the world and to make the product more accessible to more students, we are introducing Piper to schools. Dozens of schools all over the world have beta tested the product and we are excited to bring it to schools everywhere,” said Joel Sadler, cofounder of Piper. “The Piper Computer Kit is like a Trojan horse for learning—it combines a familiar video game with physical building. Ultimately we want to boost everyone's creative confidence with technology, programming, and engineering in a playful way.”

Dave McClure, founding partner of 500 Startups, said, “Combining coding and Minecraft is genius. Great to see my kids turn into little nerds; maybe they can pay for my retirement some day.”

Pavlyukovskyy said, “All of us have a lot of great potential inside of us. If we're just given the tool to transform those ideas into other things I believe there'd be a lot of great new products and inventions out there.”

Piper's Minecraft DIY computer kit teaches kids programming and engineering