Tenka Labs founders are making smart toys for playful minds—is it working?
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Co-founders Nate MacDonald (pictured, right) and John Schuster met while working at a Marin County, Calif., school district.
Nate was teaching math and offering an elective STEM course to middle school students.
John was hosting “lunch and learn” events to teach kids circuitry. (His “real” job was in the district’s IT department.)
Determined to better engage their students, they teamed up to find the best edtech toys for understanding circuits and how they work.
After reviewing a number of electronic kits—and even hacking some to create the quintessential teaching tools they envisioned—Nate and John decided the only course was to make their own.
A crude early design was launched at Maker Faire Bay Area 2014 and their first company, IgnitED Learning, was born. (The name was later changed to Tenka Labs, “Tenka” meaning “ignited” in Japanese.)
John soon quit his job in order to concentrate full-time on prototyping the set of electronic tiles that eventually became Circuit Cubes.
A year later, Nate ended his teaching career to devote himself full-time to designing a toy line that is as much fun to use as it is educational. We recently began to chat, and their enthusiasm was so contagious I asked if I could record and share our discussion with our readers.
Here, we join them mid-conversation. Nate is talking about designing fun right into learning.
Both Nate and John detail the background of inspiration that led them to become such innovators, and the joy in tinkering, playing, and creating.
“What we found was, if we covered up the learning with fun, or in other words: covered up the broccoli with cheese—so that they don’t really quite know what they’re getting, then through engagement and having fun times, they’re learning with our product. That’s the goal, the design around it.
I really think we work really closely with students, our own children we both have. I have a son who’s 10, and these kids are just one and two years above that, and a brand new boy. I think we realized that the fun has to be foremost.
“What we found was, if we covered up the learning with fun, or in other words: covered up the broccoli with cheese—so that they don’t really quite know what they’re getting, then through engagement and having fun times, they’re learning with our product. That’s the goal, the design around it.”
One of the beautiful gateways that—Vicki and I, our chief partnering officer, were at the maker fair in New York, and we were meeting with a couple parents. They just happened to have a herd of kids with them, about a half dozen, from four to 12 or 14.
We’re like, ah, we should show them the Cube, because we had a bunch with them. I was all set to give them a quick little tutorial, like a couple minutes. I swear I got to about 15-20 seconds into it and they were like, “Alright, time to play, sorry.”
They just started grabbing the cubes and started building things. You know, our products are Lego compatible.
Next thing you know, some kid had a car with a spinner blade on it. Another kid had a thing that’s lighting up when you touch it.
I just stepped away and let them engage it.
That’s the beauty of them interacting with the product.
Then if we were in an educational environment where we wanted to talk about what they’re doing, we can jump in and say, “Wow, you want to make that car go faster? Let’s talk about the gearing ratio,” or, “Wait, how come your lighted motor won’t run at the same time as the antenna speed? What if we sat them this way—like, what if we just hit way back the parallel circuits?”
They’re like, “What? What are you talking about?”
We want to keep the play forms first, and then want to take in the learning.
Then they’re really engaged.
And that’s really where we’re coming from.
You mentioned another product; that it wasn’t quite up to par of what you were envisioning. How was it not up to par, and then what are you doing above and beyond that?
Nate: Yeah, so that particular product, we’re really going to focus on the programs.
But then I’d have to go back and show them what a motor looks like.
Or that there are multiple wires in that four-prong telephone plug that they’re using.
A lot of products that are put into the classroom were first just designed as toys, and then they’re trying to force them into the educational market.
One of the key differentiators is that our product essentially was born out of the classroom and then turned into a fun toy.
Nate: Yeah, and we really want the kids to go on their adventure.
The beauty is we have a lot of technology that, really, iteration is built into the cube.
But the main purpose was not to really make the cubes stuff shine, it was about them forgetting about the cubes and going on an adventure and building a contraption.
Whether it’s the drawbridge on their castle they just made—or the searchlight on the top to protect the ships coming into shore.
We wanted them to be able to enhance their adventures that they want.
But also, they use building materials.
You know: the paper, the shoebox—that becomes the diorama with the house; the light in the ceiling, and the ceiling fan for the girls for their little patio or whatever.
Again, it’s about them going at an adventure.
And that’s what we haven’t seen a lot of in other products.
It was too much about the products—and not about the kids going on the adventure and learning along the way.
I love the name Tenka Labs. Is there any Japanese connection besides just the name itself?
John: Our original company was named something different. Basically we were like, “We need something more targeted.” Our original company was called United Learning.
We were more focused on core education, and we’ve never left that principle.
But we also knew our product was a commercial product.
With that in mind, my daughter happened to be living in Tokyo for the last three years as a JET [an exchange] student teacher. She’s like, “Oh, you should call it Tenka Labs. Tenka.” I’m like, “Tenka, what’s that?” She’s like, “It’s ignited in Japanese.”
Then I looked it up.
It still kept some of our legacy from our United Learning theme.
But it also really refreshed where we thought we wanted to ignite learning in education and adventure for students.
That’s the gist of it.
Interesting to hear the story! What is your relationship with Lego, or do you have one? How does that work?
Nate: We’re Lego compatible and also MegaBlocks compatible.
We don’t have an established relationship with Lego.
But you sometimes use nuts and bolts to do something.
Kids are comfortable using Lego-like parts to build.
We included in our kit, all Lego compatible parts so that they can build their vehicle or scribble pod or flashlight with Lego-like parts included in the kit.
These seemingly would be for early childhood education, but it’s not really true. I look at it and I’m thinking, ‘That it would be fun to play with!’ Obviously, you both like to play with the Circuit Cubes as well. So, what group are you targeting, if any at all?
John: That’s an awesome question, because I’ve said, well let’s say ‘over 50 times’ before—but I probably think of Lego as much as anybody. And we’ve seen kids that live down the street, four or five, and being able to interact with [the cubes].
It’s really about our comfort level with that. It’s a building mechanism.
When they play with Legos, for example, especially once you start combining them with Circuit Cubes, it opens up all these awesome possibilities.
We see it as they’re very compatible together.
And it enhances the things that they can build.
You’ve probably seen on the website a bunch of these cookie contraptions that kids have made.
Then you don’t see a lot of the other ones that are made yet, too.
So we’re still working on that.
We really think it enhances; that’s like—I don’t want to call it a partnership.
It’s really just us realizing that’s an amazing building environment.
Even someone who is older and they say, “Hey, I want to change my—,” like I said, their castle doesn’t have a drawbridge. We can quickly do that using Lego and Circuit Cubes together.
What kind of classroom are these suitable for—a Montessori—a free, constructivist learning environment? How do you actually put these in the classroom and get them to be used? Is there any curriculum surrounding it, any context, or they just put out and they’re toys?
Nate: Yes. For example, this summer we’re in Steven Casey Camp, which is a nationwide camp with 10,000 plus students. In that environment, it was an open play with the Circuit Cubes. And we had a lot of positive feedback from the camp that we went and observed. These kids are crafting and combining them in ways that we’d never thought of before.
In the classroom, we have a curriculum that we’re developing.
Teachers will be able to follow along lessons and highlight the circuitry and parallel and in-series circuits.
That’s an important part.
Some teachers like to create an open play environment.
But we also know that other teachers like to follow the lesson plans.
We’re going to provide all that for teachers.
John: We really lean off any higher level of education.
Or, being in the classroom.
We also have the beauty of working with students in an environment that’s called First Lego League.
And we both coached First Lego League teams for many years.
That’s how we met.
He needed an extra coach.
And I came in to help out.
And that was our initial introduction.
The beauty of that is, it opens up the kids’ eyes to a learning environment where they learn through and with their peers.
Then we are guiding them along the way.
We believe that there will be teachers who want a more formulated teaching environment.
But we also believe that our product works well with an environment where it’s a little more of just gently guided along the way.
The kids own their learning and learn through their own discoveries.
And not just the simple guided pathway.
When you go through any of our product books, we give you a quick start guide and then you have 10 different projects to build.
By the time you’re through the first two to three pages of learning how the cubes generally function together or interact with each other, you’re going on your own adventure.
That wheeled vehicle probably will never become the exact wheeled vehicle we ever determined.
Because you’re going to take your Lego, your toilet paper roll, the plastic spoons from your drawer.
I don’t know what you’re going to make.
And that’s the beauty of that.
That’s how we feel really good about being in education.
And in a more lightly educational environment, where it’s a parent and a student.
Or, just a student at home.
John, you’re a former Marine, but you seem like you’re very warm and fuzzy. Is that just something you put on for the company? Does your Marine experience, does that inform your current approach at all? How can you reconcile those things?
John: No, I think it’s because my dad was not a good teacher; he basically just told you how to do it exactly how he wanted to do.
I think I rebelled against that.
Luckily, it didn’t stop me from working well in the Marines Corps.
So I actually learned to take orders well.
But I also knew that wasn’t an environment for me to learn well.
I really liked to take the more hands-off approach.
The beauty for me is having older daughters who are 26 and 27 and a 10-year-old son now. It’s like me watching a movie; I forget what’s around me and I have blinders on.
I’m playing with students or trying to get in their minds.
And usually have to face them with them building right next to them.
I don’t want them to see me as a teacher.
I want them to see me as someone who can help guide them.
If they ask for help, it’s more like, ‘Well, what two ways—what are two ideas—you have to do this? How would you do this?
Then I help them.
I don’t want to show them exactly how to do it, because that’s how my father did.
And I don’t believe that’s a good learning environment.
Nate, as a teacher, how much of it is a pleasure for you to hand off to another classroom teacher, to see them experience that? It must be a bit of a joy in learning to just see them be able to provide the students with a very engaging experience. Is that something that you’ve experienced?
Nate: Yeah. We’ve got into about a dozen schools now.
And hopefully, 100 by the end of the school year.
It’s extremely gratifying.
Because, as an educator, you know, my goal is—and many an educators’ goal is —always to get to the point where you’re a facilitator.
And not doing a cookbook recipe on how to do something.
We designed Circuit Cubes so that it would be intuitive enough and transparent so that the kids felt comfortable to invent on their own.
To get feedback from other classrooms of seeing kids creating projects that we weren’t even suggesting that they work on, or that are built into the lessons, is really gratifying; to see kids inventing in other settings.
What do you think the state of education is these days?
Nate: I’m really excited about the direction that we’re going in.
As you know, we have the Common Core Standards that are getting kids to be more engaged and expressive and to talk about the process and what they know.
We have the Next Generation Science Standards that are being implemented where, finally, we have engineering being a part of the science classroom.
I’m very excited to see teachers having to incorporate engineering.
Obviously we have a major account, because teachers weren’t trained to teach engineering and there’s a lack of funding to train them.
Now the students are being tested on it, and they’re going to need to adapt.
And they’re going to be looking for products and curriculum that we’ll be right there to provide to them.
This could be for either one of you, what do you think technology’s role should be in education?
John: In each goal, you don’t want to focus on the technology.
I was in IT for a long time. In the IT world, I was less worried about the technology behind the theme than what the technology gave them the ability to do.
I’m not broadcasting that ‘Chromebooks is the way to go’ for the world.
But when we ran the school environment, [there] was a lack of teachers.
And schools could not afford to buy laptops for everybody to have a lab.
They just took up too much real estate.
The Chromebook environment basically provided them advice to give to the information that could help them explore and help them learn.
It wasn’t about the technology.
It’s the same way we use a 3D printer. Or laser cutter. Or a CNC to make prototypes.
It’s not about the machine—it’s about what we’re going to be able to create with it. And the tools we’re going to learn to use.
On your question about the technology:
As long as we keep focusing on it as a tool, it’s another tool in our belt.
It’s not the be-all savior.
But if we keep focusing on that so kids don’t—It’s like learning to use a Mac or a PC.
It shouldn’t be about learning an iOS.
It should be learning about adapting to learn new tools and technologies that will help make you more versatile.
And help you in your career down the road.
I see that Vicky Welsh, she’s got a lot of experience in the maker movement and she’s been connected to a lot of different companies. Pushing that along, I was just wondering what your views or what your thoughts are about the maker movement and its impact or influence on education more generally, if you can kind of talk about that sort of connection.
Nate: Yeah, the Maker Movement has really embraced the adventure in everybody, bringing out the engineers and the artists.
And bringing it together as a community of support.
It’s celebrating engineers, celebrating the whole community.
And it’s going to help us become better problem solvers as a country to the creativity environment.
We are huge fans of Maker Faire and the Maker Movement.
And parents are looking for, How do I educate my kid and engage him?
Companies are looking at, How do we educate the workforce?
The Maker Movement has been the go-to place to promote engineering, to promote coding, and making, and investing.
John: I’d go all for that.
For me, it’s the Maker Movement, for education is the thing that the kids take away from that.
That, there’s not one answer.
Or one way of completing.
Or to solve that problem.
Or what you’re trying to create to fix the problem.
They learn, they take away from that—that it’s not just a cookie cutter, that you go from point A to B.
Your project might take 20 iterations to get it right.
The cool thing is, you’re learning from a wide world of other educators and other majors that people share.
This is an environment where they’re going to be a future employee some day, where they’re going to understand that yes, they’re going to have some awesome feedback or answers to solve that problem.
But there’s a wild world of makers.
And you’re going to go through 20 iterations.
Even when you release that product like anything, you already have ideas down the road.
We want kids in other majors to realize that it’s not just you make it and you’re done.
There are going to be 20 different ways to get there.
Whatever their career path is going to be, that’s going to help them understand to keep trying, keep making it better, find improvement, collaborate, learn, explore.
That’s what I think about makers, and how the world comes into it.
We’re not just an A to B, fix stuff and you’re done.
You’re going to take that test over 50 times, let’s say.
Circuit Cubes is your first product of a greater line—what’s the vision, and what’s your business model?
Interestingly, you straddle being an edtech and somewhat of a toy company, with a STEM orientation.
Enlighten me on that, and any words of wisdom to startups in how they might progress forward?
Nate: Initially, we have our three kits: Wacky Wheels, Bright Lights, and Star Dart.
They have motors and a battery power source.
And an LED.
We have probably a dozen other Circuit Cubes that we’re going to be adding to our line over the coming year, in addition to a Bluetooth module.
We’re going to continue to span out with more and more kits over the coming year.
That’s the 2018 model, and we can grow that for quite a bit.
Because it’s almost like a building block, just like a Lego could be combined in it, together in many different ways.
They’re all different ways that Circuit Cubes can be combined.
We also — I wanted to come up with other products.
Tenka Labs had come up with additional products that address the gap in learning so that we could help educate the children of the next generation to be engineers through play and fun.
John: I’ll respond to your question about advice.
For us, I think our most important thing is we had a vision for the product.
But the cool thing is we quickly let go of the mindset of, “We know exactly how this should be.”
We worked with a lot of different outcomes.
Anything from other benefits to the education environment, to our own kits, multiple, multiple people who tested the product.
We let go of times when it was harder to design it, where you’re like, “Oh my God, I love this part about it.”
The good thing is: you have to learn to let go of all of that.
But once you do let go of that, then you realize, “Oh my God! The product is evolving in ways that I would have never imagined. Because we let our customer create it, and help us get there.”
That’s my strongest advice for anybody making especially a product or even a software product, hardware item:
You’ve just got to let go of anything you think is the ‘best thing ever’ and realize who is your target audience, and how can you make this better for them?
That’s my biggest take away advice for a new company.
This has really been very enlightening. I really appreciate you both sharing this cool and fascinating product, and the ideas behind it. And your company.
I hope we connect again!
Nate: That sounds great.
I just wanted to add that, not only are parents and schools recognizing that we need to teach engineering.
But now, the retailers are realizing that, ‘hey, parents want to buy products that teach education.’
By the end of the month, we’re going to be on shelves at Target, Barnes and Noble, Microcenter, and the MOMA and Amazon.
It’s really exciting that retailers are embracing STEM education.
It’s going to be really taking off just in the next little while.
This is probably very exciting for you and your families and also just the whole sector is getting a boost from this.
John: Oh yeah, thank you so much! Like you heard before, as parents we really just love engaging students in this stuff.
If that means let’s be kind, that’s good.
We like the task of play.
And we’re believers that there’s room for both of those worlds.
And we want to enhance that for our kids.
And all the other kids out there.
That’s a great point that we hadn’t really talked about is the less screen time and the more tactile and engagement between people and the devices themselves. That’s another huge plus. You look around and it’s kind of a zombie world sometimes.
John: Yep. We hear you.
Very good, well thank you very much, and I appreciate your time today.
John: Yeah, thank you so much, Victor. It’s been a pleasure.
Nate: Thank you, Victor.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org