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Episode 1: Two Bit Circus with Dr. Leah Hanes

In March 2020, Annenberg Learner partnered with Two Bit Circus to provide FREE STEAM-based online projects for K-12 students. The Annenberg Learner site contains over 150 hands-on science, arts, and tech projects designed for educators, parents, and children across the country and around the world. Two Bit Circus Foundation serves children in all economic situations by creating learning experiences to inspire entrepreneurship, encourage young inventors, and instill environmental stewardship 

The following transcript has been redacted and edited for quality and educational purposes. 

Nati [02:06] 

What is the Two Bit Circus Foundation?  

Leah [2:16]  

Two Bit Circus Foundation is the coming together of four smaller nonprofits, and it started about eight years ago. I came in as the first executive director of a little nonprofit called Trash for Teaching that collects, manufactures clean waste, and uses it for project-based learning. Then, shortly after I was in place, I met Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman, the two co-founders of Two Bit Circus, and they were thinking of starting their own nonprofit. I begged them to partner with us, let us be the Two Circus Foundation. We added this fabulous curriculum to Two Bit Circus, and Two Bit Circus Corporate, a micro amusement park in downtown Los Angeles in the Arts District. It is just a fabulous experience of VR, AR, video games, arcade games, and an interactive theater. We bring kids for field trips and kids are playing video games all the time so we can get them in that environment and then talk to them about the kinds of careers that exist around that environment, then it can spark their interest. If you think about it, the science fair gets the kids who are already interested in science. They did the STEAM carnival, which got all kids engaged because who doesn’t want to go to a carnival? And what they were doing is getting the kids there, having them excited, and explaining to them all of the things involved in creating arcade games and virtual experiences.  Everything we do is to try and get kids sometimes to understand how important STEM is in their life. Other times it’s just engaging with them where they already are and trying to help them see themselves as future problem solvers and inventors.   

Nati [06:10] 

Is there a particular age that Two Bit Circus serves?  

Leah [06:24] 

I would say our strongest area is middle school, but truthfully, we have done projects for pre-kindergarten through college. We’ve done work with Oxnard College exposing their students to people who look like them and are in STEM careers. I say that you know, having grown up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and when I went to Oxnard College for the first time, one of our board members was there, and she asked, “Do you notice anything different about this college?”  

I responded, “Well, first of all, I had no trouble parking.”  

And she said, “That’s part of the evidence of our student body. She said the majority of the students are first time attending college, and they are coming on the bus. They’re mostly from the agricultural communities.”   

I had a real soft spot in my heart for that group from the beginning, and, mostly a Latin community. We could bring the students to talk to younger students trying to get early-stage career people talking to them. 

Nati [8:25]   

I’m curious how these core values:  

  • Learning happens everywhere  
  • Radical Niceness 
  • Redefining Failure  
  • The Power of Collective Creativity  
  • Unleash passion, curiosity and creativity  

Shape your work during the pandemics and what the impact has been on the foundation and Two Bit Circus in general? 

Leah [9:17] 

Thank you for reading that page because it’s most important to me in particular the radical niceness. Mya Stark, who came to us from LA Makerspace, was the one who put that out as a possibility for this page. And I immediately thought, yes, it’s perfect. She had to fight a little bit to keep it there because, oh, that’s too soft.  I think it’s so critical in this climate, both for adults and students to think of that as a core value, radical niceness. The idea, we can build each other up is important, in reframing failure. Most children who are currently in school, especially in the lower grades and middle school, they’re nervous to try anything that they don’t already know. That’s just so not productive for the future. We need kids to feel like failing is not the end of something. It’s just new information on your way there. I think Edison said he didn’t fail. He just found [9,999] nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine ways that it didn’t work. And that’s the attitude that we try to instill in kids that if you’re failing, then that means you’re trying something new. That means you’re learning new things and the word itself. If we can find a way to replace it, it would be ideal. But at this point, just taking the sting out of it is important. And then you know how it relates to the pandemic. Whereas, you know, doing things digitally now, there’s no geographic issues. There’s no worry about whether parents can drive you or not. And the one good thing that came out of the pandemic was the one-to-one ratio for kids with devices. Suddenly we could reach kids anywhere. The accessibility to the internet is not always key, but there are workarounds, and the school board made adjustments so that kids could have hubs in different places.     

Nati [13:20] 

Can you talk a little bit more about the virtual programs, what do those look like?  

Leah [13:30] 

Sure, it was a variety of different projects with the Oxnard Elementary School program. We sent kits to the district office, and students picked them up with Two Bit Circus kits and facilitators. We had projects that they could do in another situation with solar. We did something called “Tell Your Story,” with music and video. That was born out of just the idea that all these kids are struggling with isolation at the most social time in their life. They are stuck at home. And for some kids, being stuck at home was not awful. But for a lot of kids, it was. We wanted to give them an emotional outlet that could tell their story, so we didn’t give them any direction on it other than how to do it, how to handle the software program. We were teaching them how to put music under their story if it was a video, or how to write a song if it was a song, they wanted to use to tell the story. And that came out of my own experience with my son when he was about 15. And, you know, high school kids are often depressed, and things don’t work out. I had got my son a keyboard, and that was the savior for him through high school. He had a place to lock himself up and be creative if he was dealing with some struggles. We can’t get every student a keyboard, but what could we do? All the staff is saying you don’t need a keyboard anymore you just need a computer. We created programs that addressed the current need, and some of it was academic, so, you know, trying to keep them on track there. But a lot of it was based on social, emotional learning and giving them some patterns that they could follow to get themselves out of the tough and emotional place.   

Nati [17:40] 

Where do you see STEM education fitting in this current environment and for the next couple of years?  

Leah [17:52] 

We offer a great deal in that arena. Follow the instruction projects are not as helpful because, in the future, the robots will do follow the instruction work. Giving kids an opportunity to iterate and invent and explore gives them a chance to build the critical thinking and problem-solving muscles that they will need in the future.  I think STEAM and STEM offer a great deal of opportunity. I’ve often said that with expensive robotics kits, you’re getting a fun experience of building the robot, but it’s still a follow the instructions experience. Whereas giving them random materials and old motors or, you know, Raspberry Pi – and we have something called the Circus Arduino – we know giving them those items and asking them to build a robot, they become problem solvers. I think it has a significant role to play in the next couple of years, and it can be one if it’s handled well. That is fun and engaging for the students as well and doesn’t feel like a punishment. 

Nati [24:30] 

For schools that have limited budgets or even parents that are looking for ways to bring this type of learning to their home, how do they do that? How is it not prohibitively expensive?  

Leah [25:00] 

I’ll start with an example of someone you should have on your podcast in the future. His name is Tim Griffin, and he has an organization called Griffin Ed. He’s a retired schoolteacher, and he was teaching fifth-grade math. He told me this story, and it was so perfect because it didn’t cost anybody a penny, and it’s effective. He added something to his Friday afternoon because he said, Friday afternoon, the kids were all thinking about what they were going to do over the weekend, and all he’d have to review everything they forgot over the weekend. He implemented something that he called Math-ter piece Theater. He brought this class into two groups, and they had to do two plays. They each had to do a play that incorporated the math that they had worked on that week. So, it gave him Friday afternoon to do his planning because they were so busy creating their play, and they didn’t forget what they put in that play. You could apply that because who would have thought you could have made math a theater experience? Starting at inexpensive projects, you can have kids bring in an old toaster. Let’s take it apart and see how it worked. Let’s reverse engineer. There’s education in that. 

Nati [29:53] 

If I’m a teacher and I want to bring more steam into my classroom, where should I start?  

Leah [30:05] 

Our group refers to your database of projects as the Fort Knox of the curriculum. I mean, it is just there’s so much in there and it’s so amazing. I think that that’s a great place to start. And you know, as you mentioned in your introduction, we put all of our projects on there with you a couple of years ago. There are lots of ways to start this that are not costly. The project books that we’ve put together are designed to help the teacher. We show what standards alignment the project addresses and what grade level it’s appropriate for. And then we tell the teacher the kinds of things they’re going to need. But it won’t be, you know, you need bottle caps this size. It’ll be you need something that will turn for a wheel. You need something that can act as an axle. It needs to be able to carry a payload. So we give them what they’re going to need, but not exactly because we don’t want them all to look alike. And this is an interesting challenge. Right now, we have new partners in Hong Kong and they’re struggling with the approach of not instructing because they are used to telling the students exactly what they need to know and then having them memorize that material.  They’re struggling to get kids to be able to think critically and to the idea, they can copy something, but they can’t create something. And I think that’s part of the barrier. And really for us at this stage, the real challenge is having the teachers understand that they can struggle through some of this as well. And it’s OK if the student sees the teacher learning something in front of them because that will help them see that, you know, learning is a lifelong experience and you don’t need to have all the answers when you start.    

Nati [33:00] 

Where does this type of education fit in a school day? In the U.S. are there particular classes that happen during the day or is it mostly after school? Is it considered enrichment? Where do you see it fitting?  

Leah [33:12] 

Well, I guess the real answer is probably all of the above, but the perfect world solution to this would be really in every class. There’s room for project-based learning in every subject. There’s room for it just to help the student learn so much better. Any time you can involve more than one sense at a time or more than one emotion at a time is going to be helpful to the student. The first school I toured was Para Los Ninos in Downtown Los Angeles. They have a little atelier in the back of every classroom, and they have been using Trash for Teaching from the beginning.  They have in their front hallway a huge, China cabinet with all glass, and it’s filled with materials from Trash for Teaching. It just made me feel so happy to walk through that school and see, in their English language class, they have the students make something that comes from the book they just read, and in their civics class, they walked through Downtown. They did a little field trip, walked through one area of Downtown, came back, and built a mural of what they saw on their walk. I mean, there’s always a way to add a project.    

Nati [36:50] 

Can you talk a little bit about the STEAM Lab Makerspace? What type of sites have the Steam Lab Makerspaces and how does Two Bit Circus support them?  

Leah [37:10] 

Yeah, this is my favorite project that we do. We do professional development around helping teachers move from lecture style to learning by doing and supporting them with refills. They can order a refill for the Steam Lab when they start going through their materials. We also encourage them to, you know, sometimes kids make something and they want to take it home. Especially with the older classes, they can make it, take it apart and put it back, and use the material again and again and again. The real beauty of the maker space is a place where kids can have an idea and create something around it. We do a couple of competitions, the Inventor’s Challenge, where they come up with something in their community or their school or their home to improve and design something that could improve it – the only real instruction we give there. My favorite visit of a Makerspace we had built at Webster School and on the west side of Los Angeles, was a well-organized room that had glue stuck on the tables and paint spilled on the tables. When a kid walks in there, they have just like a very basic reaction, I can work in here, I’m not going to get in trouble. If they walk into a pristine, making makerspace with white cabinets and all very clear, then there’s nervousness. If I spill glue, if I spill paint, what if I make a mess? Whereas you know, a real makerspace should be a clean mess.   

Nati [40:45] 

During the pandemic, when a lot of students were home with families and learning from grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles, what were some of the opportunities to work on a project together?  

Leah [41:00] 

Interestingly in schools, we batch kids by age, right? I think it’s for our simplicity that we do that. Maybe in the very early years, that’s important while they’re all learning to read. I think schools would better serve if we batched kids by interest later in life. You could have the apprentice group, the middle school group, if they’re interested in this, you know, aerospace. They might be working with high school kids who have been studying it for several years. Because at no time in your life are you going to work with only people in your age group.  I am a big fan of having the parents come to the makerspace and talk about what they do for a living and then have the kids make something that’s relevant. Anyone who’s baked a cake is a maker. Anyone who’s fixed a fence or built a fire in the fireplace, you’re a maker. You learn to make something with your hands. Every parent has something that they could come and talk to the kids about that the kids could then try to make something around. 

Nati [43:03] 

Are there models of that that that you know of, either that particular model or the middle school and high school apprenticeship model?  

Leah [43:14] 

Yeah, I haven’t seen any middle school or high school apprenticeship ideas, but I co-authored a book during the pandemic with Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari. Our book was an idea for a way to rearrange schools to have them a little more effective because the older kids anchor in the learning while they’re teaching the younger kids. Younger kids believe things they’re told by near peers much faster than they believe by we, adults. In terms of the daycare and elder care, there is one facility in the Valley the name escapes me right now. They have a daycare on the same premises as a senior care facility. We were there, and I got chills just thinking about it again. The little ones come over to the senior facility twice a day for reading, and the minute the door opened, the little ones all ran to who their favorite person was to be read to. Everyone in the room had a little one with them, they paired them, and then the kids just became attached. You could see in the seniors, and they just lit up! There are a lot of seniors that don’t have grandchildren, or at least they don’t have them locally. It was so healing for the seniors in the room and the little ones. It was just fabulous! 

Nati [45:30] 

What is the name of the book? Where can we find it? 

Leah [45:40] 

 It’s coming out with Greenleaf Publishing, and it was supposed to come out in January. The paper and ink shortage are slowing things down, and the title is Learn IP. Nolan Bushnell’s new venture is an educational program designed to take the best of the video game world and the best of the curriculum development world and mash them together. That’s what this book is about. Kids are playing video games all the time, and parents are how do we get them off. So, we decided, well, why don’t we just make video games where the learning is automatic. Rather than having to write a test on Friday afternoon for your math class, we know when you get to level six that your algebra is ready. Each level in the game is the test and having the game’s fun and exciting enough to make the kids want to play them. It’s based on individualized learning, so each student and the computer and software give us the idea of what they are most interested in and directs them down that path.  The Waldorf system has been doing it for ages, you find a child who’s interested in music, and you teach them geography through their favorite style of music. If we could help them see that your interest has this variety of careers around it, and we don’t need to take them out of their interest, we need to help them see how their interest can influence their career choices. 

Two Bit Circus Foundation  

Trash for Teaching  

LA Makerspace 

STEAM Makerspace  

Para Los Ninos Elementary School  

Brent Bushnell  

Nolan Bushnell  

Eric Gradman 

Mya Stark  

Tim Griffin  

Griffin Ed  

Raspberry Pi  

Circus Ardino 

Spare Parts (2015 Film) 

The Waldorf system  

Daniel Webster Middle School  

Lernip (soon-to-be released)