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Bright Little Labs inspires children through Detective Dot role model

Interactive books aim to inspire a generation of coders to investigate where possessions come from and how they’re made

Children’s education company Bright Little Labs is set to launch a series of interactive books that feature a female heroine called Detective Dot with the aim of inspiring a generation to take more interest in IT.

Sophie Deen, founder of Bright Little Labs, recently spoke to Computer Weekly about the social enterprise and its mission to inspire young children, particularly girls.

Deen, who was recognised as a rising star in Computer Weekly's most influential women in UK IT 2015 awards, launched Bright Little Labs with the mission of inspiring, entertaining and educating children about vital global issues such as fair trade, gender equality and the environment.

Through books, apps and animations Bright Little Labs has created the young female coder Detective Dot, who strives to investigate where our possessions come from. In her global quest for answers, Detective Dot asks children, “Who made this?”, “Where does this come from?” and “What kind of impact does this have on the environment?”.

The story books are aimed at children aged seven and over, and see Dot, who is a developer by day and a detective by night, find the root of where her possessions originate from. The first seven stories focus on cotton (Uzbekistan), the tin inside a smartphone (Democratic Republic of the Congo), a wooden chair (Indonesia), chocolate (Ivory Coast), a gold necklace (Peru), a microchip (Brazil) and sugar (Belize).

Due to launch in September, the interactive digital books can be downloaded onto tablets and iPads. They are also available as hard copy books.

Deen said Bright Little Labs was created to inspire change. “A few things kept bothering me,” she said. “First, our obsession with buying stuff and not knowing how it’s made. How is it that we can buy a cotton T-shirt hand-picked in Uzbekistan, manufactured in China and delivered to our doors in 24 hours – all for less than a fiver? We’ve become disconnected and de-sensitised to the realities behind our consumption. Children even more so. They have an abundance of things and aren’t taught about where they are from. 

“Second, children need more positive role models. As a society we talk about needing more women in engineering, science and technology. I want to create toys and stories to reflect that. 

“Third, technology can engage children in a really cool way. They spend an ever-increasing amount of time on their phones or tablets – why not make the content educational as well as entertaining?”

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Bright Little Labs recently partnered with clothes recycling charity Traid to run education workshops. “We love Traid and everything they stand for, so when we were offered the chance to be part of their pop-up in Soho we jumped at the chance. Traid work tirelessly to stop clothes from being thrown away and to tackle inequalities in the supply chain. Their approach is sustainable, fair and highly impactful,” said Deen.

“We’re running a workshop called ‘Fair Trade by Numbers’ with educators and primary school teachers. We’re looking at how to use real data to help children understand what fair trade means. For example, using datasets around global wages or carbon emissions, we’ll discuss different ways to represent the data so that it becomes meaningful, including by sewing physical cubes made of reclaimed cloth and foam to represent and compare interesting values.

“Children are starting to think that things come from Tesco. Literally. A recent survey showed 40% of kids didn’t know that milk came from a cow. We want to inspire, entertain and educate children about vital global issues like fair trade, gender equality and the environment, using fun and engaging storytelling. In her quest to find the origins of everyday objects such as T-shirts and phones, Detective Dot inspires kids to ask questions like, 'Who made this?', 'Where does this come from?' and 'What kind of impact does this have on the environment?'.

“We want children to understand that, through informed decision-making, everyone can make a difference.”

Leigh McAlea, head of communications at Traid, said: “One of the obstacles to improving conditions in the global garment industry is a huge consumer blind spot to the people and processes involved in making our clothes. As a charity raising funds to tackle the problems caused by the waste, production and consumption of clothes, Traid thinks that Bright Little Labs' approach to encouraging children to investigate where their stuff comes from is brilliant.”

Positive role model for girls

As an advocate for encouraging more girls to take up careers in technology, Deen created Detective Dot to provide a positive role model for young girls. 

“As a society we talk about needing more women in engineering, science and technology, but we don’t see that reflected in children’s toys or stories. I’m fed up of the heavily stereotyped world of toys. Children are exposed to so many negative gender stereotypes from such an early age.

Children need more positive role models. As a society we talk about needing more women in engineering, science and technology. I want to create toys and stories to reflect that
Sophie Deen, Bright Little Labs

“Toys packaged in blue or pink arbitrarily indicate what children should and shouldn't play with, science-based toys are often marketed at boys and there’s a plethora of skinny blonde princesses for girls and fighting ‘heroes’ for boys.”

Laura Kirsop, product manager at Future Learn, adviser to Bright Little Labs, said: “The toys and stories children are ordinarily exposed to are unchallenging and littered with lazy stereotypes so it’s really important that companies like Bright Little Labs exist to challenge the status quo. It’s awesome that children will get to learn about important issues in fun and interactive ways – we should have high expectations for the next generation so that they can set about solving the problems we face.”

Graham Brown-Martin, author, designer and innovation adviser to Bright Little Labs, said: “It's often been said that children grown in cities don't know where their food comes from. Milk, they say, comes from the supermarket. So we teach them and let them discover so they can put their world into context and make informed decisions.

“In today's world of high street retail, video games and smart devices, understanding the context of where and how, as well as the who, of how things arrive in our hands has never been more important. Sustainability, environmental persistence and equity will be watchwords for today's young people so they can make informed decisions about their tomorrow. This is why I'm involved in Bright Little Labs.”

Rick Jones, head of business development at Doubleclick, Google and commercial advisor to Bright Little Labs, said: “Education is yet another area of our lives that is entering a period of technological transformation, that is literally turning it upside down. The faster we grasp technology's rich potential to enhance the education of young children, the sooner we will bring its benefit thousands of young lives. Social enterprises like Bright Little Labs are at the heart of this movement, developing exciting new approaches that utilise gamification and interactivity to engage children like never before.

“This ultimately enables them to take on complex global issues, such as water and food shortages, in ways that make sense and are attractive to children – much in the same way that Minecraft and similar applications teach children about the need to take care of scarce resources, and the power of creativity in problem solving.”

Developing key skills

Deen explained that the stories cover key computer science concepts such as algorithms and logical thinking to start teaching children to discover things for themselves. 

“We want children to investigate the world around them and to be persistent. Developing independent thinking and problem solving is really important. We’re creating curriculum materials to be used alongside the books or independently for teachers.”

Louise Kwa, a teacher at Beckford Primary School and education advisor to Bright Little Labs, said many children do not know where their stuff comes from and have many misconceptions about the things we buy.

“When I think about the children I teach, it's vital that they ask questions about where their stuff is actually from so that they can make informed choices in the future. Alongside this, Detective Dot also approaches the ongoing battle for gender equality in children's literature and games. It is essential our young girls have strong female role models that encourage them to pursue their interests – particularly in Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] – and not be discouraged by gender stereotypes,” she said.

“Detective Dot stories and resources are an ideal stimulus for discussion of global issues that are very useful in the primary classroom, and she’s fun too – my class love her! There’s loads of opportunity for cross-curricular learning, for example with geography, maths and PSHE [personal, social, health and economics]

“The tie-in with the new computing curriculum is genius too. It’s an exciting new subject, but it can be daunting. Using storytelling to explain some of the computer science concepts in the new curriculum and to showcase a strong young female who is a coder makes the subject accessible to students and teachers alike. Dot is engaging and fun whilst teaching children essential information and skills for their future,” said Kwa.

Bright Little Labs is currently on the hunt for more partners to collaborate with. “We love collaborating with people who care about these issues too – whether it be fair trade, sustainability, positive role models for children or more mindful education,” said Deen. “If you want to get involved, please get in touch.”

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Kudos to Bright Little Labs. Nice to see industry step up to fill this void. Materials like this are essential if we hope to make coding - or any education - interesting enough to pursue.

As a nation, we've let our children down. Badly. We've demoted education and knowhow to an afterthought. Education, once prized on its own, is now ridiculed as an excess. We're one of the few western countries that don't provide free (or cheap) college education. No preschool. Colleges have hiked tuition fees beyond comprehension, while banks gouge students with overpriced loans. We've made education harder and harder to achieve.  All while we demean our teachers, relegating them to voiceless, underpaid second-class citizens.

I can only hope this is a start, a realization, a movement to bring education back where it belongs. Before it's too late for the next generation.
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