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Lasers, electronics and robotics energize STEAM Carnival

Traveling high-tech fair is meant to demonstrate the fun side of engineering
In the game Laser Meteors, students use a smartphone to shoot at the lasers on the ground, breaking them apart before they strike the player.
In the game Laser Meteors, students use a smartphone to shoot at the lasers on the ground, breaking them apart before they strike the player.

A carnival with a twist is coming to the West coast this spring. Instead of eating cotton candy and riding Ferris wheels, students will navigate a laser maze and measure their strength in volts—all while learning engineering skills.

The STEAM Carnival was created by Two Bit Circus, a Los Angeles-based engineering and entertainment company that creates high-tech games for clients like Intel and the arcade restaurant Dave & Buster’s.

“We realized that kids don’t want to be engineers, which doesn’t make sense to us—because we have a blast building games for a living,” says Brent Bushnell, CEO of Two Bit Circus.

The carnival is meant to demonstrate a fun side of engineering that’s “less like a science fair and more like a rock concert.” And, the art component of STEAM makes it accessible for students who are intimidated by science and engineering, he says.

The carnival will arrive in Los Angeles and San Francisco this spring, and its large game machines will be set up in a location outside of schools. Students will be bused to the carnival site on a Friday, and it will be open to the public the next two days.

The more than 30 games will include a “a mash-up between Whack-A-Mole and Twister” in which students recreate a pattern of lights on a wall by hitting buttons with different parts of their body. The game design demonstrates basic electronics and microcontrollers, Bushnell says.

In another room, students use geometry to get through a maze of laser beams. They have to bounce the lasers off mirrors, redirecting the beam’s path to avoid coming into contact with the lights. And, the carnival gives the ring toss a fiery twist: Students have to figure out the angle at which to throw a disc to make a milk bottle ignite.

Before the carnival visits, Two Bit Circus will provide teachers with a free curriculum targeted to middle and high school students, but which also can be used with younger students, Bushnell says. Lessons will cover circuits, programming and basic fabrication—all skills that college engineers learn, and that are used to build the carnival games.

Students can create projects to showcase at the carnival—and, Bushnell says, he hopes students remember the “art” part of STEAM. For example, instead of creating a traditional trifold science poster on circuits, a student could present a fashion show of wearable electronics.

The group is still working on costs, and finding sponsors that may bus students in free.They raised over $100,000 on online funding platform Kickstarter, and hundreds of communities pledged money and also asked Two Bit Circus to bring the carnival to their areas. The group is now trying to plan a national tour.