Last Wednesday, a group of 24 children from the ages of 7 to 12 gathered at Lucasfilm headquarters in San Francisco. They laughed and chattered with excitement, had their pictures taken next to the Yoda fountain and squealed at the sight of R2-D2. They were there to attend a "Droidathon," where participants competed to see who could build the best R2-D2 lookalikes out of LittleBits' Droid Inventor Kit. But the kids weren't there to compete; they were there to judge.
Instead of kids, the competitors were engineers from various Bay Area tech companies -- Facebook, Instagram, Fitbit, Google and two of LucasFilm's own: Industrial Light & Magic as well as ILMxLAB -- the studio's immersive-technologies arm. From the aforementioned Droid Inventor Kit, the engineers created all sorts of droids -- they danced, blew bubbles, projected holographic images, delivered candy and more. As for the kids, they were from four children's organizations aimed at educating underrepresented minorities: the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Black Girls Code and the Booker T. Washington Community Services Center.
The reason for the role reversal, according to LittleBits CEO Ayah Bdeir, was to get kids to meet people in the industry who look like them. Many of the engineers who took part in the Droidathon were women and people of color. The goal? To promote diversity in science and technology.
"This is something very inherent to who we are," said Bdeir. "We're very committed to making electronics accessible and inspiring to kids for all backgrounds and genders."
LittleBits is a system of electronic building blocks that snap together with magnets to create circuits. It's a simple concept, but it's one that lends itself to endless creativity. Since littleBits debuted in 2011, there have been a multitude of kits to create anything from simple synthesizers to a smarter internet-connected home.
Bdeir, an engineer herself, took care to make LittleBits gender-neutral to inspire more girls to be interested in science. Six years later, and her efforts have paid off: 35 to 40 percent of the LittleBits community are girls, which she said is a rarity in the electronic-toy category. It's this statistic that was one of the reasons LittleBits was accepted in Disney's Accelerator program last year, which is where the company gained the expertise and the resources to create the Droid Inventor Kit. Kids can create their very own R2 unit with the kit but are also free to remix materials into their own creations.
"Our goal is to inspire young kids to become inventors," said Bdeir in a welcome speech to the Droidathon crowd. "We want to start a movement around STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, art -- we think art is really important! -- and math."
The reason, she continued, is because according to the National Science Foundation, 84 percent of those in jobs in science and engineering are male, specifically white and Asian males. "By eighth grade, about 50 percent of kids lose interest in STEAM," she said. "In the past few years at LittleBits, we learned that the best way to engage kids is to essentially make something crazy and fun, and to show them cool people doing it."
Jane Okpala, a production-operations manager for Facebook who also leads a women employees group at the company, was at the Droidathon to show her support. Her droid was the InstaDroid, which, unsurprisngly, the Instagram team created. InstaDroid was supposed to display the blueprints of the Death Star but ultimately failed to do so due to poor WiFi. Still, Okpala was upbeat as she talked to the kids in attendance, asking them to apply for internships when they're older.
"It's so important for underrepresented minorities to find different entry points into science and technology," she said. "LittleBits is a great way for kids to feel empowered to get started in science; to get inspired to build."
One of the most popular droid creations at the Droidathon was created by FitBit. Called the R2Fitbot, it lights up and blows bubbles -- the idea being you use a lightsaber to swat them, thus improving your skills. Of course, it's just for fun, but kids flocked around it, eventually awarding it the "Droid we most want to keep ourselves" prize. "Just being able to get tools in kids' hands is really valuable," said Liz Goodyear, a mechanical engineer at Fitbit who helped create the R2Fitbot.
Google's team, with its candy-dispensing droid, got the most accolades from the kids. Painted green, just like the Android logo, the droid would pop out a piece of candy if you said "OK Google" followed by "I want candy" to a connected phone. Google also made a second droid that chased after the first one (it was nicknamed the "candy thief"), but it was the first droid that was awarded the "most inventive" and "best idea" by the panel of kid judges. "We went through a lot of ideas," said Jim White, a Google engineer, who learned about the contest through an internal Makers group. "In the end, we figured candy was the easiest way to win kids over."
Candy wasn't the only gift the kids received. At the end of the Droidathon, Bdeir gave away a LittleBits Droid Inventor Kit to every child in attendance, prompting deafening screams of joy to fill the room. The giveaway came after LittleBits announced a much wider droid-making competition, where kids of all ages are invited to submit their own droid creations on the LittleBits website. The contest is open to everyone in the US, Canada and the UK, and prizes include a VIP trip to Lucasfilm, signed replicas from the coming "Star Wars" film, and a shopping spree at Disney stores. It opens November 15th and lasts until January 10th -- the judges include Bdeir, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, Daisy Ridley (who plays Rey), and Kelly Marie Tran (who plays Rose Tico in "The Last Jedi").
Tran also happened to be present at the Droidathon to help kick off the contest. "I'm so excited to see what you guys make for us," she told the kids. "It's so incredible to be an engineer, to problem-solve, and create things that can make the world a better place."
"You are the next generation," continued Bdeir. Then, she addressed the parents in attendance. "We need you guys to help with the movement as a support system for kids. You guys are so important in this process."
She paused. "And if you guys are inspired to be inventors," she continued, "it's never too late to start."