littleBits is an award-winning Startup toy company that aims to teach children about designing, building, and other STEM subjects in a fun and age-appropriate way. The littleBits kits encourage kids to play creatively via inventing items using electronic building blocks. littleBits was founded by an engineer named Ayah Bdeir, who was named by Forbes as one of the “10 Most Powerful Arab Women.” Ayah, a graduate of MIT, wants her items to help close the gender gap between boys and girls in scientific fields. In September, the company announced that it was partnering with the Star Wars franchise to produce a “Droid Inventor Kit.”

The Star Wars themed “Droid Inventor Kit” will enable children to use littleBits electronic blocks to make their own custom droid, just like the ones featured in the famous science-fiction films.

The kit will come with a “Droid Inventor” app which will enable builders to program their robot so it can do tricks and go on over sixteen different “missions.” The set retails for $99.95 and it comes with twenty droid parts, six bits, three sticker sheets, and the free app alongside details instructions and video tutorials that can be used as easy-to-understand guides.

The iOS and Android app that accompanies the set both challenges and encourage kids to reconfigure littleBits technology in unique ways such as combining it with household items to custom-create innovative droids that can "guard" rooms and transport objects from one room to another. The droids can be programmed in three main ways: Self-Nav, Drive Mode, and Force Mode and stickers are included to help give it a unique visual appeal.

Krystal Persaud is an industrial designer who holds the position of Director of Product Design at littleBits and she was one of the essential designers on the team that developed the “Droid Inventor Kit.” Krystal is a founder of “Grouphug,” a design collective at the New Jersey Institute of Technology which teaches courses on product devolvement.

Given the popularity of Star Wars and the innovative nature of the littleBits, Krystal fully understands the potential of such products as tools of learning.

Via an exclusive interview, she recently discussed the product and her hopes for its future.

Toys, children, learning, and STEM

Meagan Meehan (MM): What are some of the greatest benefits that children get from STEM toys?

Krystal Persaud (KP): I think the best STEM toys empower kids to be creative problem-solvers. With littleBits, for example, we aim to be FUN first and foremost and to get kids excited about learning STEM/STEAM. But we also want to [be] open-ended enough to inspire creativity and experimentation.

MM: What kind of toys did you enjoy playing with as a child and how does this inform your work today?

KP: Surprisingly, I didn’t play with LEGO a lot as a kid. I loved arts and crafts and had a really wild imagination. No one toy sticks out in my mind, just generally PLAYING. My sister and I used to invent our own board games, obstacle courses, and Rube Goldberg-like contraptions in our backyard. We were somewhat mad inventors!

We dreamed up crazy inventions and they worked brilliantly (in our eyes). We always felt immensely proud of the nonsensical game we made up. Sometimes it's easy to forget that play is a really powerful thing - it's an integral part of how children develop their intellectual, emotional, and physical capabilities. At littleBits we pride ourselves in being advocates for play and invention-based learning as well as learning.

MM: How did you come to partner with Star Wars and were you always a fan of the series?

KP: littleBits was invited to join the Disney Accelerator, which is a program that helps startups partner with Disney companies on new products and experiences. Through the Accelerator program, we met with teams across the Walt Disney Company, which included LucasFilm.

Partnering with LucasFilm on a Star Wars project felt like a perfect match - we could get more kids into STEM/STEAM using technology from the films, and we already had an active community of littleBits inventors who loved Star Wars and invented their own lightsabers, droids, etc. with littleBits. Personally, I am a huge fan of Star Wars - I dress up as Darth Vader for Halloween every year in an interactive costume I hacked with littleBits - so it was thrilling to be able to work with the LucasFilm team!

MM: How did you decide on the specific look of your littleBits droid?

KP: For the fans, we wanted it to be instantly recognizable as an R2 unit and to stay true to its classic elements: the proportions, the placement of vents, etc.

But it was also important to be able to showcase littleBits and for kids to be able to see and understand the underlying technology, which is what led to the clear shell. The stickers were a great solution that allows children to customize their own droid. They can create classic blue, or red and black, or use the white stickers to color their own design.

Star Wars, customizing, and designing

MM: How exactly is it customizable and what have you seen children create?

KP: We really wanted kids to feel empowered to make the droid their own, so we’ve embedded customization into several aspects. First, you can customize the look of your droid using the white stickers to change the color or design of the shell.

Then you can customize the body or head of your droid using materials from your home - making a head out of a milk carton, for example. Ultimately you can design an entirely new droid of your own creation, with its own capabilities. Does it drive? Does it detect when someone is nearby? You can reconfigure the circuit or add new Bits from the littleBits library to invent anything you want. We’ve had kids in our community create a popcorn guardian, a drinks delivery droid, secret message droids, and many more.

MM: What have been the most rewarding aspects of collaborating with Star Wars on this project?

KP: Working with LF regularly and being able to dive deep into the Star Wars Galaxies. We got to go to big fan events like Star Wars Celebration and the D23 Convention, and have met with people from the R2 Builders club and other fan communities.

It was also a chance to work on a product at this scale that can have a real impact on how children engage with STEAM.

We took this opportunity to make deliberate product decisions to make this tech toy more gender inclusive. Star Wars toys aren’t just for boys! We think a key to gender inclusivity is allowing kids to customize and express their own unique personalities (rather than identifying with pre-set male or female aesthetic). With the droid Inventor Kit, kids can not only choose their own color schemes, but also the functionality of what exactly they want their droid to do. We did user testing with diverse groups of kids and parents and know that both genders enjoy playing with the droid.

That was a huge moment of pride for me. Right now, we’re very focused on the droid Inventor Kit, but I am excited about the future!

MM: Can you tell us a bit about the collaborative you founded, "Grouphug," and its mission?

KP: Grouphug is a design collective that aims to address the overwhelming problems that society faces. We’re a group of feisty designers who want to create designs that make a positive impact on the world. We produce an annual show during NYC Design Week around a big, relevant issue; past themes included nutrition, energy, the environment, prejudice, discrimination, etc.

MM: Do you feel that your involvement with Grouphug has impacted your career at littleBits at all?

KP: Yes, 100%.

I think they both feed energy into each other. I am very deliberate and stubborn about how I spend my energy. I am obsessed with developing products that fall in the intersection of education, technology, and society. Anything else is not worth designing. Grouphug’s goal is to push designers to think big and use their creativity as a means to solve and create discussions around important societal issues. Most of the concepts shown at Grouphug shows are prototypes and may never make it to market and that’s okay. I hope the process of tackling a big problem for a design show will influence designers to continue to tackle big problems professionally as well. At littleBits, we are tackling big issues like gender inclusiveness, education, and lowering the barriers to STEAM education.