STEAM Carnival aims to get kids interested in tech

The son of Pong creator Nolan Bushnell creates a carnival for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math education.

111115 fire booth
Credit: STEAM Carnival

Maybe growing up in a household playing video games helps promote creativity after all. At least, that's one possible explanation for the STEAM Carnival event put on in San Francisco last weekend by the son of Pong-creator Nolan Bushnell (with help from a couple of his siblings).

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STEAM is an expansion of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math education) concept, adding an a for “art” to make it more interesting for a wider variety of children, explains Brent Bushnell, CEO and roustabout for Two-Bit Circus, the organization that produces the STEAM Carnival. Aimed at kids from 7 to 14 or so, Brent says the goal is not to deliver specific instruction, but to build excitement and interest in these kinds of topics by making them as fun and interactive as possible.

A quick visit to the event at Pier 48 in San Francisco quickly demonstrated the fun side of the equation, with the cool exhibits ranging from VR football to electric tricycle drift racing and hobby-horse race video games popular with the smaller kids. Then there's the Polycade, a series of classic console games like Galaga, Pac-Man, and StreetFighter running on a Raspberry Pi built into retro-style cabinets. Polycade, which plans to offer the cabinets on Kickstarter, is helmed by Brent's brother Tyler, while sister Alissa works on marketing for the event.

111115 arcade game Fredric Paul

But the piece de resistance is clearly the Dunktank Flambe, a Mythbusters-style redo of the classic county-fair booth where a well-placed throw can get local celebrities dropped into a tank of water. In the STEAM Carnival version, though, the subject sits in a booth that explodes into flames when a pitch hits the target.

Fire is way cooler

Why? “Because fire is way cooler,” Brent explains. And I can testify, it really is pretty cool to hear the roar of the fire and watch the flames engulf the booth, envelop the subject—wearing a flame-retardant suit so he doesn't die—and shoot into the night sky. The “lucky” person in the booth on opening night in San Francisco? Nolan Bushnell himself.

111115 firebooth 2 Fredric Paul
STEAM Carnival

The big question, of course, is whether STEAM Carnival really helps inspire kids to enter STEM (or STEAM) fields. Brent Bushnell says the STEAM Carnival focuses on the fun first, but also offers hands-on programs in robotics and other maker-style activities. It will be a while until we know whether that approach leads to more software engineers in 2026, for example, and the connection is likely to remain anecdotal at best. But tech sponsors like Cisco, the Salesforce Foundation, and others seem to think the effort is worth supporting to encourage the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 attendees to get excited about the concepts. And Brent says the Carnival is just the tip of the spear—he's also working on curriculum training for teachers to incorporate STEAM concepts into regular classes.

The STEAM Carnival started in LA earlier in 2015. Its next stop is in Seattle on April Fool's Day, 2016.

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