Mechanical Computing Game Teaches Coding Fundamentals

Child playing with Turing Tumble game

Years ago, when Paul Boswell, Ph.D., was teaching at the University of Minnesota, he noticed many students from across the sciences ran up against a common barrier: they didn’t know how to program. Without computer programming skills, some types of research is more difficult to do, while other types are off the table entirely, highlighted in recent articles in Nature and Wired.

Boswell knew it was important for students to understand more about computers at an earlier age, but to him, the multitude of programs, devices, and courses already available to teach coding fundamentals often overlooked a very important component.

Two children playing with Turing Tumble game“The problem is that all of these websites, robots, and other educational materials require a computer or a computer chip,” he said, adding that the actual “thinking” the computer does—its logic—remains hidden to the user. “Kids really don’t understand what’s going on underneath the surface.”

Boswell, then a research assistant professor of analytical chemistry in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, took up a side project. He began developing a marble game, inspired by the workings of mid-1900s mechanical computers, that would help players learn and practice the basic concepts of programming. This game, which came to be known as the Turing Tumble, is now close to reaching living rooms and classrooms. Last month, the University’s Venture Center helped Boswell launch a startup company (also named Turing Tumble), to manufacture and sell the game.

The game challenges players to solve computational puzzles by attaching game pieces to a grid of plastic pegs that each perform a specific operation when a marble reaches them. When marbles are fed through the top of the board, they follow the logic of the game pieces and, if these pieces are configured correctly, the system sorts the marbles in a way that matches the puzzle’s solution.

Boswell said the game is different from other educational coding activities because it’s more approachable to programming newcomers. The game demonstrates some of the basic concepts of computer logic without getting bogged down by the syntax of coding languages that can confuse or repel new coders. Instead of mulling over the precise use of semicolons, parentheses, and capital letters in lines of code, for example, players can visualize computer logic in action and easily adjust it to perform different operations.

Using just the pieces Boswell created, the Turing Tumble can add, subtract, multiply, divide, and more, using the same type of binary operations at the heart of “normal” computers. If it were large enough, it could perform any function a regular computer could.

Printing Out the Pieces

Turing Tumble game and pieces

Boswell, who now lives in Shoreview, MN, and works for a software firm that uses computational mathematics to develop health care programs, has a long history with the U of M. He began his graduate studies in analytical chemistry at the U in 2003, and later returned as a post-doctoral researcher in 2009.

During Boswell’s five years in CFANS, his research focused on developing a new approach to identifying small molecules—biologically active compounds useful in research and pharmaceuticals. The work was computing-intensive, requiring researchers to write lots of software, and Boswell had a hard time finding students who could program.

“It really limited the types of research that were possible,” he said. “I guess that’s part of what precipitated the Turing Tumble—trying to grow the base of students practiced in computational thinking and interested in learning to code.”

It was at the University that Boswell first used a 3D printer to create the early plastic models of the Turing Tumble’s pieces. He tested many different versions of each piece, reworking each until they all fit together and interacted correctly on the game board.

Around this time, serendipity struck. Boswell noticed an illustration done by Jiaoyang Li, a high school student who had come to work in a University chemistry lab as part of a summer program, and was impressed by her artistic talent. He asked Li if she would help him create a comic that would serve as a storyline for the challenges in the game.

Li agreed and set to work illustrating the adventures of Alia, a space engineer who attempts to escape from a deserted planet. The narrative weaves together the 51 puzzles included in the game’s manual, teaching concepts early on that are necessary to solve increasingly complicated puzzles as the player progresses. Li would later work as part of Boswell’s research group at the U, and she is currently a senior majoring in art and computer science.

Funding to Kick Things Off

After Boswell left the University, he kept developing the Turing Tumble. Eventually, he finished the prototype and turned his sights to launching the game. It would take funding to cover the costs of manufacturing game materials, especially the expensive, customized injection molds needed to mass-produce the game’s 14 types of plastic parts.

On June 1, Boswell launched a Kickstarter campaign hoping to raise $48,000 by the end of the month. The campaign quickly amassed ample support. At this point, with only a few days left, funders have already pledged over $285,000—more than 600 percent of Boswell’s goal.

With the funding lined up, he expects to have the game available in stores and online in early 2018. Boswell said he was excited to have the game finished and especially to get it into classrooms. The Turing Tumble can tie into several school subjects, including circuits, computational thinking, and problem solving, and Boswell is also looking at how it can tie into grade-specific standards.

Two nearby schools, Turtle Lake Elementary School in Shoreview, MN, and Lakes International Language Academy in Forest Lake, MN, will each receive a set of 20 games from donors. Boswell said having the schools nearby will make it easy to support their integration in a hands-on way before working with schools farther away.

“Computers are everywhere now, and kids start using them so young,” Boswell said. “I hope this will help them understand, at a more fundamental level, how computers work.”

Photos provided by Paul Boswell

Cancer treatment startup based on U research wins Tekne Award

Tekne Award

A startup company that develops next-generation cancer treatments based on University of Minnesota research has been awarded for its innovative therapies.

GeneSegues Therapeutics received the Minnesota High Tech Association’s Tekne Award Wednesday night in the category of Health Care — Small and Growing. Tekne Awards recognize innovation across Minnesota in industries ranging from advanced manufacturing, health care and agricultural technology.

GeneSegues develops microscopic capsules that serve as a vessel to transport gene therapies through the body that help stop the spread of cancer. The capsules are smaller than conventional nanoparticles, allowing them to slip past the human body’s biological barriers and attack cancerous cells more precisely, while leaving healthy cells unharmed.

The company grew out of research done by U of M post-doc Gretchen Unger, Ph.D., in the early 2000s. Unger is currently chief scientific officer with the company. The company’s CEO is Laura Brod, who is also an at-large member of the University’s Board of Regents.

U startup Andamio designs educational biology game

Students using tablets

Students will soon have a more interactive and engaging way to learn the fundamentals of cell biology.

University of Minnesota startup Andamio Games has partnered with Sehoya Cortner, Ph.D., professor with the College of Biological Sciences, and Barbara Billington, Ph.D., professor of STEM education with the College of Education and Human Development, to develop a tablet-based educational game to teach the concepts of cell respiration and photosynthesis. The project, funded by a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, will conduct pilot tests of the game at classrooms this summer and ultimately provide the game to schools across the country free of charge.

Andamio Games, launched in summer 2015 and based in Minneapolis, creates interactive games that help educators in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields teach core concepts to students through individualized learning and collaborative problem solving. Continue reading

STARTUP guides medical entrepreneur in path to market

Blue Pills

Paul Hines knew his design for a high-tech pillbox could help caregivers better manage their loved ones’ medications.

So when Hines heard about the University of Minnesota’s STARTUP course in fall 2014, the then-U of M Medical School student saw an opportunity to find out how to bring his invention from prototype to market. The 14-week experiential learning course, offered through the MIN-Corps program, encourages undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. students to test the commercial potential of their ideas by working with instructors and mentors to connect with potential customers, test their hypotheses and refine their business models.

“It’s one thing to have a feeling on your commercialization strategy, but it’s another to spell it out and be challenged on it,” said Hines, CEO and founder of DOSE Health, the company based around his high-tech pillbox. “Through STARTUP, we were able to go out to talk to potential customers and be face-to-face with those who were going to be affected by our invention.”

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Startup tests children’s early learning skills

Child with tablet

A University of Minnesota spinout company that develops software to assess early learning skills is starting to take off.

Reflection Sciences, which launched in July 2014 and is based in St. Paul, provides training and tools for assessing children’s executive function — the skills that control attention, thoughts, actions and emotions. The company now has about 30 local, national and international customers who use its digital assessment platform, including public schools, private schools, after school programs and other universities, which use the assessment for their own research on executive function.

The company is based on technology developed by Stephanie Carlson, Ph.D., and Philip Zelazo, Ph.D., two scientists with the U’s Institute of Child Development. Their Minnesota Executive Function Scale (MEFS) forms the basis of a five-minute iPad game that tests the skills of children ages 2 to 7. The easy-to-use program serves as an inexpensive way for teachers, paraprofessionals and researchers to not only measure executive function, but to identify where and when to positively intervene to help students.

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Research leads to record 16 startups in FY15

Bright Ideas

Technology commercialization transforms the latest breakthroughs into everyday solutions that improve our health, environment and quality of life.

At the University of Minnesota, researchers are developing inventions that aim to tackle some of society’s greatest challenges. In fiscal 2015, the Venture Center at the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization formed a record 16 startup companies around these inventions, topping the previous record of 15 companies in 2014 and bringing the total number of startups launched to 84 since the Venture Center formed in 2006.

“It is exciting to see university research leave the lab and be applied on a larger scale to solve societal problems,” said Brian Herman, Ph.D., the U’s vice president for research. “By bringing these ideas to market, the U is helping to spur entrepreneurial activity and advance Minnesota’s economy, strengthening its competitiveness in key industries and creating the basis for new ones.” Continue reading

Startup Profile: Minnepura Technologies Inc.

Modern urban wastewater treatment plant

Minnepura Technologies Inc. uses bacteria-based biotechnology to purify water that has been contaminated by chemicals from industrial processes. The company is based on scientific discoveries by University of Minnesota researchers Alptekin Aksan, Ph.D., of the College of Science and Engineering and BioTechnology Institute, and Larry Wackett, Ph.D., of the College of Biological Sciences and also of the BioTechnology Institute.


Technology

The U of M-patented technology behind Minnepura uses small, sponge-like silica beads to trap certain types of bacteria in place. The beads, once placed in water, allow the bacteria to eat away potentially dangerous chemicals, naturally breaking these compounds down into harmless, environmentally friendly byproducts. And because the bacteria are contained within silica, scientists can ensure they stay alive and effective for months. Minnepura’s team identifies which bacteria are best suited for removing specific problematic chemicals in water, and then designs silica beads with the right type of bacteria inside to remove those contaminants. The company manufactures these beads for use in industrial and municipal water purification needs.


Potential impact

From industrial waste to agricultural runoff, there are numerous forms of chemical pollution that end up contaminating lakes, streams and groundwater, creating health risks for humans and animals alike. While there is a growing need to remove these chemicals, traditional methods are complex, costly and unsustainable, requiring condensed chemicals to be stored in a landfill as hazardous waste or pumped into injection wells deep inside the Earth. Minnepura’s silica beads provide a natural, low-cost alternative that can be custom-designed for specific chemicals from a wide range of industrial operations. The technology is also flexible enough to use in existing water treatment systems. Continue reading

Startup Profile: The Actives Factory

Autumn Birch Trees

The Actives Factory prepares the natural chemicals found in birch tree bark for use in environmentally friendly cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and more. The company is based on scientific discoveries by Pavel Krasutsky, director of the Chemical Extractives Laboratory at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute.


Technology

The birch tree has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to protect itself from harmful bacteria, fungi and viruses by producing natural chemicals. Studies show these compounds, found in the trees’ bark, kill bacteria and prevent the growth of viruses, making them ideal for use in many different personal care products, such as soaps, shampoos and body lotions. The Actives Factory uses patented technology invented at the U of M to extract beneficial chemicals from the bark on an industrial scale, which can then be sold wholesale to manufacturers.


Potential impact

Birch bark is a widely available byproduct left over from pulp and paper mills. Rather than discarding it through burning, the Actives Factory puts this resource to use, processing it into a form that can be used in a wide range of everyday cosmetic and hygiene products, as well as many pharmaceuticals that treat serious illnesses. With its natural ability to limit inflammation, bacterial infection and virus growth, birch bark is an effective ingredient in medicines and completely safe for human use. Continue reading

Startup Profile: MesoFlow

MesoFlow manufactures a device that prepare biological cells for use in medical procedures like bone marrow transplants and to treat disease like sickle cell anemia. The company is based on scientific discoveries by the University of Minnesota’s Allison Hubel, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering with the College of Science and Engineering.


Technology

Blood cells and stem cells, generally obtained through donations, are an important resource for biotechnology, disease treatment and advancing medical research. After collection, cells are stored for future use by a freezing technique using chemicals to help cells survive the process. When the cells are later prepared for use, the chemicals have to be removed, as they can be harmful to humans.

MesoFlow’s technology uses a first-of-its-kind approach to remove these chemicals by funneling the cells through a saline wash. At a microscopic scale, the cells separate from the storage chemical as they flow through the device. The technology makes the process of cell preparation automated, disposable and inexpensive, while minimizing the number of cells lost in the process.

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Startup Profile: Ninja Metrics

Social network

Ninja Metrics Inc. provides a social analytics tool that can measure how players in online games influence each other and assess the monetary worth of that influence. The company is based on a computer program developed by Jaideep Srivastava, Ph.D., professor of computer science and engineering with the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering.


Technology

Ninja Metrics centers on the Katana Analytics Engine, a software program based on U of M technology that uses complex algorithms to understand how users of online games behave and influence one another. Katana processes a wide range of information about players’ actions to predict their future behavior, such as how long they are likely to keep playing the game and the amount of money they are likely to spend on optional extra game content, like character upgrades and new playable environments. While many analytics engines track the users that spend the most money, the Katana engine is the first to identify and analyze the users that influence their peers the most. These players with high “social value” are the most likely to draw new players into the game and spur existing players to purchase content they otherwise would not buy.

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Startup profile: ApoGen Biotechnologies

DNA test

ApoGen Biotechnologies Inc. is developing new drug therapies that will make cancer treatments more effective. The company is based on scientific discoveries by the University of Minnesota’s Reuben Harris, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics, and Daniel Harki, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicinal chemistry.


Technology

ApoGen is developing a new class of drugs that will slow the evolution of cancer cells, as well as companion diagnostics to identify the patients likely to get the most benefit from these therapies. ApoGen’s drugs block the activity of an enzyme called APOBEC, and the companion diagnostic will identify tumors with high levels of this enzyme. This technology is broadly applicable to many cancer types, including breast, lung, ovarian, bladder and head and neck cancers.
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Faculty research fuels record 15 startups in FY14

Hi-tech screens

University discoveries often hold a lot of potential for improving people’s lives, but they aren’t ready to sell when they leave the lab. The University of Minnesota’s Office for Technology Commercialization helps bridge that gap.

OTC forms startup companies around U inventions, partnering faculty with industry professionals who have the expertise needed to turn a breakthrough into a commercially available product. In fiscal 2014, OTC’s Venture Center launched a record 15 startup companies, topping the previous record of 14 companies in 2013. Since forming OTC in 2006, the university has launched a total of 67 startup companies. (See this infographic for more information on U of M startups and their impact.)

Dr. Brian Herman, the U’s vice president for research, said the university’s talented faculty make discoveries that let people lead safer, happier, healthier lives. Continue reading