Project Numeric Blocks

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This project is currently under discussion as our submission for the March 2011 Hackerspace Challenge. It is competing with two other projects, which are being discussed and prototyped in parallel.


Project summary

A set of blocks that engage the participant in educational exercises. They are a tactile interface, reminiscent of the alphabet blocks that many kids play with, and they become way more exciting when you throw in a microcontroller, a few sensors, and feedback components. Our current design has only numeric display and the proposed exercises are about numbers, counting, sets, fractions, and arithmetic.

Our design priorities for this project are:

  • Stay focused on numbers, keeping the exercises simple to internationalize.
  • Prototype fast; optimize cost later.
  • Quickly design an API, so that a content team can start working in parallel.
  • Make it easy to program in the field, with hopes of starting a community of content producers.
  • Keep the design flexible, so that lower cost parts can later be substituted.
  • Concentrate the expensive parts in a "master station" and minimize the cost per block, allowing for affordable exercises that involve many blocks

Status update

We had very productive conversations at SplatSpace on Tuesday, April 5, 2011. We had contributions from and discussions with:

  • Ashley McClelland
  • Justis Peters
  • Kristin Bedell
  • Peter Reintjes
  • Skippy Hope

Here's a summary:

  • discussed at least 3 exercises that could be programmed for the blocks
  • discussed many details about how kids learn numbers, counting, sets, arithmetic, and fractions
  • discussed how kids would be like to use and/or re-purpose each of our proposed designs
  • identified two practical fabrication options
  • discussed multiple ways to isolate the power source and the more expensive microcontrollers in a base station
  • identified a MVP (minimum viable product) that could be prototyped rapidly, to allow some initial programming early


Procured (3) 2" hardwood blocks and a bag of 5/8" snaps from Michael's. I am currently drilling out one of them after marking snap/drilling locations. By Tuesday I will have a hollowed out block with attached snaps for examination/form factor. Note that 2" is the largest block I have seen ready-made. They are $1.39 each. -Jeff Crews


  • identify top 3 merits/opportunities for the project
  • identify top 3 challenges for the project
  • simple 3D sketch of each proposed block design
  • attempt one or more fabrication methods
  • learn more about supercaps for short-term energy storage
  • detail the human-device interaction for at least two educational exercises


This project was first proposed by Justis Peters as one of the candidate projects for the March 2011 Hackerspace Challenge.

On Tuesday, April 5 2011, it was nominated as one of three top candidates for our entry in the GGHC. We also held a small-group meeting to discuss the details.