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Changing Gears: Startup’s Next Mechanical Game Teaches Electronics

Top-down view of Spintronics game pieces connected together

It was shortly after launching his marble-based game to teach computing concepts that Paul Boswell had an ambitious idea. What if a similar game could instead teach electronics—a subject known for its complicated math and hard-to-visualize concepts—in a simpler way? What if that game could run without electricity itself?

“Electronics is a really hard subject to teach because it’s so abstract; you can’t see electricity, you can’t feel it,” Boswell, PhD, said. “It’s really hard to understand it or even to find it all that interesting. But it should be interesting. Electronics is about manipulating energy, making it do cool stuff.”

Three years later, Boswell—who previously created the Turing Tumble while he was a research assistant professor at the University of Minnesota—and his team have launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring this tangible electronics game, dubbed Spintronics, to life. Thousands of backers have already contributed to the Spintronics campaign, which started on May 20, leading it to surpass its $74,000 goal by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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Animated view of the Spintronics game pieces in action
An assortment of Spintronics game pieces in action, powered by the mechanical battery (far right).

Spintronics runs on no actual electricity, Boswell explained. Instead, the player pulls back a wind-up string inside of the game that serves as a “battery,” providing a constant force to move the other pieces that make up the circuit, such as capacitors, inductors, and transistors. The player arranges these pieces in custom configurations to create circuits and watch how they work as “electricity” flows through them. In addition to the game pieces, Spintronics includes puzzle books full of challenges the player must address using only a specific list of available parts—essentially teaching them to apply electronics concepts to solve problems.

“It’s the first physical representation of electronics that I think has ever been built,” Boswell said. “Hopefully it will be something that changes the way we teach electronics, because now we have it in a physical form. You can feel the pull of voltage, you can watch current flow. It just makes electronics so much more tangible and relatable.”

Building on Success

The new educational game follows several years of success with its predecessor, the Turing Tumble. Boswell developed the original game while a faculty member in analytical chemistry at the UMN College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences. He often found himself having to teach students how to code, which showed him how important it was for today’s students to understand computers at a fundamental level.

In 2017, with the design of the Turing Tumble finished, Boswell worked with the Venture Center, part of UMN Technology Commercialization, to launch a startup company to manufacture and sell the game. He then established a Kickstarter in hopes of raising the funds needed to manufacture the game pieces and bring the product to market. Those hopes weren’t misplaced—after only a day or two, the campaign surpassed that goal, ultimately reaching $400,000 by the end of the fundraising period. Boswell quit his job and dedicated his time to producing the game.

Since then, his company (also named Turing Tumble) has sold nearly 200,000 units, with most of the sales taking place directly through the company’s website. The game has also found a home in classrooms, with somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 different schools now using the Turing Tumble as part of their curricula.

“It’s teaching how computers work, which I think I lot of teachers like because computers are everywhere,” Boswell said. “It’s a real ‘aha!’ moment for kids.”

While he is excited by the success of the Turing Tumble and the strong start in fundraising for the upcoming Spintronics game, Boswell acknowledges that developing the games, especially Spintronics, meant overcoming a host of challenges.

It proved complicated, for example, to develop the Spintronics game’s “battery” because real electricity presents a very consistent flow of energy, while mechanical forces tend to lose momentum over time and slow to a stop. Electrical junctions were also hard to model, since the game uses chains to represent the flow of electrons through wires, but splitting the “flow” of a chain into two different directions is more complicated than splitting an actual electrical current. In total, the game’s design took three years.

Boswell said he would not have been able to work through these challenges and bring his educational games to this point if not for his time at the University, where he did his graduate and postdoctoral work before working as a research assistant professor for a time.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do this had I not had the education that I had there,” he said. “I learned an awful lot about communication and about attacking difficult problems.”

Photos courtesy Paul Boswell/Turing Tumble.

Kevin Coss

Kevin Coss

Kevin is a writer with the Office of the Vice President for Research.

coss@umn.edu

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