WHO Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman Two Bit Circus Los Angeles
ACHIEVEMENT Making kids want to learn.
Brent Bushnell can summarize his plan for overhauling how we teach kids the essential subjects of science, math, and engineering—all disciplines children have struggled with mightily in this country for nearly a generation—in three words: lasers, fire, and robots.
Bushnell, the 36-year-old CEO of the startup Two Bit Circus, talks in roiling torrents and calls himself and his cofounder, Eric Gradman, “giant nerds.” But his dead- serious ambition is to make STEM subjects—that’s the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math—more attractive to kids by making them more fun. The company’s bedrock creation is the STEAM Carnival (the extra vowel is for art), which debuted over an October weekend in a 50,000-square-foot Los Angeles warehouse. The carny is a kind of Trojan horse for the STEM curriculum: Lure kids in with attractions they’re reflexively drawn to—concerts featuring robots, interactive experiences, contests, prizes, and games—and you can fill their heads with science-y things they never knew they wanted to know.
The games form the thumping heart of the enterprise. Bushnell, the son of Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, connected with Gradman to create technology-focused amusements for a monthly Bay Area social gathering called Mindshare. (Bushnell describes it as a “drinking club with an art problem.”) When they noticed how the games electrified the room, the two men realized they had a business plan and quit their “traditional STEM jobs” to start Two Bit.
STEAM games include a motion-capture mechanical bull and a laser-maze limbo, in which participants wend over and around beams like burglars in an art-heist movie. Wield a sledgehammer in the Jacob’s ladder game and you send lightning-bolt voltage shooting up the pole to ring the bell. Toss a ring over a milk bottle and a fireball detonates from its mouth. Unlike old-school carny games, whose secrets remain concealed, the STEAM versions come with engaging explanations of their underlying science and technology.
There’s a curriculum for participating schools, with six weeks of hands-on learning that culminates in, say, the creation of a wearable device for a fashion show. “There’s all this crazy, awesome stuff you can do now,” Bushnell says. “In a weekend we can build a robot that controls shit in outer space. If kids had a better sense of what was possible, they would be excited about it too. We believe it’s the new rock and roll.”
Rock and roll never had robots. Lasers and fire, yes. But not robots. This just might work.