May 22, 2017
This VCU grad’s company may provide the next level in computer science instruction
Michael Smith aspires to teach programming for Bluetooth, wireless tech and the internet of things through his startup, Radiant RVA
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A company that emerged from the da Vinci Center at Virginia Commonwealth University has built a prototype device that may soon teach aspiring programmers how to write code and develop for wireless systems, Bluetooth technology and the internet of things.
Radiant RVA, co-founded by Michael Smith, who graduated earlier this month from VCU’s Master of Product Innovation program, is aiming to roll out a curriculum along with an interactive device that will teach programming skills to students of all ages, preparing them for computer science projects and future careers.
“Our focus is on doing something in the digital world and seeing it come to life in the physical world,” Smith said. “With this device, you’re going to learn hardware programming techniques. So, if I do some coding, I can turn the lights on and off. You’re learning how to do coding that interacts with the real world. It’s tangible. You’re able to see it, touch it and hear it.”
The company’s learning system device, called the Vector iQ Learning System, looks a bit like a series of model rocket ships, each featuring lights and sounds. The student will use a smartphone to wirelessly connect to the system, and will write code that manipulates the device — turn the lights on and off, change the lights’ colors, make tones and sounds — all while completing lessons from the accompanying curriculum. As the student progresses through the curriculum they will unlock more advanced modules that cover topics ranging from sensors and data collection to cyber-security principles.
“A lot of this is about how do you connect to devices? How does Bluetooth work? How does the pairing and security work?” Smith said. “This platform also teaches kids how to create wearable devices — smartwatches, Fitbits and similar popular devices.”
A number of toys and platforms already on the market, such as Sphero and littleBits, teach the fundamentals of programming and technology. Radiant RVA wants to provide users with the next level of computer science training.
“[These toys and platforms] are really abstracted from what real computer science is. They’re great for sparking interest and learning fundamentals, but there’s not really anything out there right now for the next step — teaching syntax-based coding like C and C++ and Java,” Smith said. “So we started moving in that direction to try to fill a need in the marketplace.”
We decided to develop a system that will teach them true computer science.
The idea, Smith said, is that Radiant RVA will provide the practical coding experience needed by users ready to graduate beyond the fundamentals.
“We know it’s kind of a niche market, but we’re trying to catch students who are interested in coding and computer science at an earlier age,” he said. “If you learn Scratch [a programming language aimed at children] in fifth or sixth or seventh grade, you want to keep learning computer science principles. So instead of teaching them the abstracted stuff, where they’re not really learning the core principles, we decided to develop a system that will teach them true computer science.”
Complicated, but rewarding
Smith began pursuing a master’s degree from the da Vinci Center, a collaboration between VCU’s Schools of the Arts, Business, Engineering and College of Humanities and Sciences focused on advancing innovation and entrepreneurship, after working for 14 years at a manufacturing company in Florida that makes parts for boats. He decided to enroll in the Master of Product Innovation program because he wanted to learn more about the development side of manufacturing, particularly how sensors and other technology are reshaping 21st-century manufacturing.
At VCU, however, Smith became interested in Bluetooth technology while working on a CoLab project that imagined how VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art might incorporate technology. Smith’s team came up with an idea that Bluetooth beacons could track visitors as they moved through the museum, allowing them to recreate their experience afterwards.
In researching how Bluetooth technology works, Smith connected with Mark Nichols, president of Spanalytics, a Richmond company that provides cyber security consulting to government and commercial clients.
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Nichols gave Smith some Bluetooth tips, and they stayed in touch after the project wrapped. Not long after, Nichols suggested they partner together, as he had been wanting to help the community and teach young people about wireless technology.
“Since we all have kids, and would like to see them and others do well with potential STEM careers, we came up with the idea of making a product and helping to teach STEM to kids, starting in Richmond,” Nichols said.
Smith ran with the idea and began developing Radiant RVA as his Master of Product Innovation capstone project.
“I met Mark and we started talking about this and initially thought this was too far outside of my comfort zone but I guess if I’m going to do a master’s degree project I should really push myself,” Smith said. “I came in with an engineering background, and [at VCU] I’ve learned business, marketing, art and other product development fundamentals. So this was an opportunity to work on a startup that touched on all those points. I probably picked a project that was way more complicated than I’d anticipated, but it’s definitely been rewarding.”
Serving the community
Radiant RVA is currently a “Doing Business As” of Spanalytics and has recently been field-testing its prototype and curriculum at a handful of Richmond-area high schools. The team is fine-tuning the curriculum, and hopes to soon hire a curriculum specialist and graphic designer to bring it all together. Additionally, Smith is focused on polishing the prototype and is weighing a possible Kickstarter fundraising campaign.
A key part of the idea, however, is that Radiant RVA will be a community service endeavor as much as it is a business.
“We’re looking at the pricing where we might be able to add a little bit on for those who can afford it, and for each one they buy, we’ll donate a device to an underprivileged kid,” Smith said. “Or if you buy a set for your child’s school, maybe we can also send a set to a school in a high poverty area.”
Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the da Vinci Center, said Radiant RVA is an example of the “incredible outcomes that emerge from an iterative design process taught in the Master of Product Innovation program.”
“Michael's ability to identify a pressing need in Virginia, and the nation at large, and design an end-user-based solution is representative of the human-centered design and action oriented approach in the da Vinci Center,” he said.
Radiant RVA is also particularly notable, Westlake said, because it is focused on improving the technology talent pipeline in the U.S., and he has no doubts it will be successful.
“The current gap between market needs and available talent is so great that a myriad of solutions are needed to close the gap,” he said. “Radiant RVA is a particularly poignant solution in that the audience is younger than traditional solutions and provides the greatest opportunity for scaling in the future.”
Nichols added that Smith and Radiant RVA are a testament to the da Vinci Center’s master’s program.
“He has learned to speak and ‘pitch’ well,” Nichols said. “The cross-discipline approach has given him a good foundation, and learning to fail, pivot and repeat is invaluable in product development or a similar job. A couple of years ago I might not have said these were important skills for my people. We are very technical and were very focused on our one big contract with the government. But then, I decided we should branch out a bit, get outside of our comfort zone, and try making a product or two. Even do something good for the community.”
Smith, meanwhile, is focused on bringing Radiant RVA’s solutions to market soon.
“We’re just a bunch of computer nerds trying to figure out how to best teach this content to late-middle school, early-high school students and anyone else who’s interested in learning how to code,” he said.
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