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A robot that introduces children to coding and programming” With Sandy Enoch

Our aim is to get as many children as possible excited about STEM subjects from a young age by injecting some fun into their lessons. As societies increasingly strive for technological solutions, we are seeing a rapid change in the skill sets needed in industry. At present, we cannot train people fast enough to fill […]

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Our aim is to get as many children as possible excited about STEM subjects from a young age by injecting some fun into their lessons. As societies increasingly strive for technological solutions, we are seeing a rapid change in the skill sets needed in industry. At present, we cannot train people fast enough to fill this influx of jobs, meaning that in many countries there are now more vacant jobs in STEM industries than people willing to fill them. Couple that with fewer and fewer students pursuing STEM careers after school, and we are looking at a real problem — the skills gap is steadily widening.

As a part of our series about what’s around the corner for the toy, game, and video game industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sandy Enoch founder and CEO of Robotical.

Sandy Enoch is the founder and CEO of Robotical, a multi-award winning Edinburgh based start-up founded in 2016, which aims to inspire, engage, and educate the next generation of engineers and scientists by letting them get hands on experience with their very own walking robot. Its first product is Marty, a patent-pending, fully programmable walking robot. Version 2 of Marty is scheduled for release in early 2020 and adds sound, bluetooth, position and force-sensing smart motors, and new expansions like grabbing hands and the colour changing Disco Marty. For more information please visit https://robotical.io/.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

Ihad been studying robotics as a PhD at Edinburgh University, so I already had a real interest in the field. One day I was looking for a robot for my niece as a Christmas present, but couldn’t find a suitable one on the market — they were either too basic or they cost thousands of pounds. There was no affordable, but fun options on the market. I decided the best solution was to build her one myself, and Marty was born. That initial difficulty in finding the right toy for my niece has now become a thriving company.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the most exciting instances was a large order of thousands of robots to a South Korean company in 2017. They met us a trade show and were very keen to take Marty on as quickly as possible. It was a real learning experience stepping up the quantities we were supplying so quickly; even though we’d designed things to scale, we hadn’t expected to need to do so quite so fast. On top of that we had to finish off certification for a new market, and help with translating and localizing the content and instructions — a lot to do for a small team. It was a great experience, but looking back I’d probably have pushed to slow it down a bit to make things less manic — as the saying goes, moving slowly can sometimes make you move faster.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There have been many people who have helped me make Marty a reality and get the company off the ground. I absolutely could not have done this on my own. Two people who spring to mind are Paul Devlin, who worked for the University’s commercialization department. Paul took me seriously when I said I had an idea for a company making tiny robots and was invaluable in helping me tune the proposition and get some funding to get started. The other is Rob Dobson, who’s now our chairman. I first bumped into him at a code club where I was demoing a very early Marty prototype. Rob was one of the dads there and showed an interest in what I was up to — at the time I didn’t realize he was an experienced investor and entrepreneur himself. He’s been involved with the company since, and it just goes to show how useful it is to get your idea out into the world and start meeting people.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I like to think that Robotical has really impacted people’s lives and inspired children in to STEM careers. There are lessons from school that I can still remember, because they were an experience, that channeled me towards my own career in robotics. Hopefully Marty is creating similar experiences for children in school today and can help us to plug the skills gap in STEM industries, which is affecting almost every nation on earth and is becoming a global crisis.

Ok fantastic. Let’s now move to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell us about the technological innovations in toys or games that that you are working on?

We are continuing our development of products aimed at getting children excited about STEM subjects. This started with Marty, a walking, dancing, ball kicking robot designed to give children an introduction to STEM subjects — specifically coding and programming. Marty is completely unique, with a patent-pending design that enables him to move unlike any other robot of this kind on the market.

Right now, we are just going through the final stages of developing Marty v2, which is due to walk into schools and homes from March 2020. He is packed with new features, including smart sensors that allow Marty to copy demonstrated movements, motors that allow grabbing hands, obstacle detection, Bluetooth compatibility, sound capability and the all new Disco Marty setting — at the request of my nephew — giving children more options on how they use the robot than ever before. Alongside this we are also developing a lot of new content for teachers, which will make it easier than ever to teach STEM subjects in an engaging way.

How do you think this might disrupt the status quo?

We are hoping to build on the success of version 1, which sold thousands of units to over 150 schools across 50 countries. Having spoken to a lot of teachers, STEM subjects are difficult to teach because a lot of students, particularly girls, aren’t engaged with them and prefer other, more creative subjects like Art or English. I hope that Marty can throw these stereotypes off and show students that there is fun and creativity to be found in STEM subjects, instead of adhering to perceptions that they are dull and uncreative.

You, of course, know that games and toys are not simply entertainment, but they can be used for important purposes. What is the “purpose” or mission behind your company? How do you think you are helping people or society?

Our aim is to get as many children as possible excited about STEM subjects from a young age by injecting some fun into their lessons. As societies increasingly strive for technological solutions, we are seeing a rapid change in the skill sets needed in industry. At present, we cannot train people fast enough to fill this influx of jobs, meaning that in many countries there are now more vacant jobs in STEM industries than people willing to fill them. Couple that with fewer and fewer students pursuing STEM careers after school, and we are looking at a real problem — the skills gap is steadily widening.

I’m very interested in the interface between games and education. How do you think more people (parents, teachers etc.) or institutions (work, school etc.) can leverage toys or gamification to enhance education?

I would be wary of using the word ‘gamification’ in education as it can leave children feeling disillusioned or frustrated if they cannot complete the game, meaning they carry a negative perception of that subject. I prefer to use the term ‘project-based learning’, which focuses on achieving smaller, easier to complete stages that can be pieced together as part of a larger project.

“However, we have seen that making education more like play time can really help to engage children in the classroom and at home, and using props and toys is key to this as it can really help to spark imagination. It is vital that you find the right balance between play and education. If tasks are too much like play students won’t learn much and the toy becomes a blocker rather than an enabler of education. On the other hand, if it’s not fun children simply won’t want to use it.

I know that this question may be outside of your core expertise, but I’m sure you will be able to share some important insight. In your opinion, how is the US doing with regard to engaging young people, and particularly girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

The STEM skills gap is particularly pronounced amongst women, so getting more girls interested in these subjects from a young age is essential. I have seen some good initiatives in the US, such as New York Academy of Sciences 1,000 Girls, 1,000 Futures scheme, which is really supportive of young women looking to explore a career in STEM.

“Three ways I would suggest to increase engagement in STEM subjects with young girls are:

  1. Show STEM subjects as fun and creative. We see a lot of young girls reaching for subjects that are deemed to be more creative than ICT or Computing, such as Art. If we do more to showcase STEM’s creative side we can help change attitudes towards it in the long term.
  2. Bring learning to life. Young girls will have a much better understanding of how STEM can impact their lives if they can relate to it. This starts with basic steps, such as using STEM tools to recreate their favourite new dance move, or other activities they enjoy in their day-to-day lives.
  3. Sustaining interest. Evidence suggests that girls’ peak interest in STEM occurs at 11 years old, but peters out by the age of 14, so giving them tools that are age appropriate, but that can also be scaled up in difficulty as time goes by is key to prolonged engagement.”

How would you define a “successful” game or toy? Can you share an example of a game or toy that you hold up as an aspiration?

Toys are judged on their longevity. If a child only plays with a toy a handful of times, I am not sure it can be viewed as successful. To achieve sustained enjoyment, it is essential that educational toys are fun for pupils of all ages, whilst also being easy for teachers to use — even for those that are not technically minded. If it isn’t engaging for pupils, or is too hard for teachers to use, it won’t be seen as useful to teachers or students and will end up collecting dust in the cupboard.

What are the “5 Things You Need to Know To Create Successful Games or Toys” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. They must be fun. The success of a toy ultimately boils down to how children receive them, and if they aren’t fun, children won’t want to play with them.
  2. Leave room for imagination. By allowing customization of the toy, young people can develop their own story or character for their toys, which will really help to get them excited about using it.
  3. Relatability is key. A toy that children can use to replicate actions they take themselves can really help bring it to life.
  4. They must stand the test of time. If a toy can only be played with by children in a narrow age range, they won’t be used for any great length of time. Making a toy that can be used by 10 year olds but scaled up for 18 year olds will ensure long term success.
  5. Future proof your product. There is no point in making a toy that us cutting edge today, but old tech tomorrow. Thinking ahead and leaving scope for add-ons when new technology becomes available can add longevity to your product and give it diversity.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The biggest thing would be to get more people thinking about ways tech can be used for good, and not afraid to try and find solutions to problems they see in the world around them. Things like the Ocean Cleanup Project are just fantastic — a young person sees a problem, has an idea, and then is able to make it a reality. How could we use tech to help with problems that affect us all? Like climate change, the aging population, food supply, and over time to give us all better lives — if we get education right, we can inspire a generation of young people to solve these problems.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It’s quite cliched, but simply “This too shall pass”. Life can be tough, starting a company is really tough, but whenever things get really difficult it’s important to maintain perspective. Similarly, when things are going really well, you can’t get too complacent.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Marty is across most social media channels. Keep an eye on his YouTube channel for the latest videos showing Marty and his new features in action. Of course, he is also on FacebookInstagramTwitter and Github, where you can see the latest company news and updates, including some great videos of our customers using Marty.

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