[FoRK] Howtoons gets press, if only from MIT's own magazine

Meltsner, Kenneth Kenneth.Meltsner at ca.com
Wed Apr 28 14:43:49 PDT 2004


The world needs this.  My childhood (and university education) was
filled with projects built after dumpster diving for scrap -- the old
Polaroid building near my dorm was especially interesting as it often
contained mill ends of polarized or mirror coated plastic.  Today's kid
spends too much time in virtual worlds rather than getting his or her
hands dirty (or cut, burned, etc.).  Howtoons are almost as cool as the
flower pot arc furnace of the _Boy Mechanic_ books, and a heckuva lot
safer, and they manage to reference Tintin as well.

---Howtoons and the Birth of Open Kid Ware

Howtoons Cofounders Joost Bonsen '90
and Saul Griffith, AR '00
By David M. Enders 

Give a kid a water rocket and she plays until the thing veers off course
and lands with a thud on the neighbor's roof. Show a kid how to make a
water rocket and she plays until her curiosity is satisfied. And if
Howtoons cofounders Joost Bonsen '90 and Saul Griffith AR '00, have
anything to say about it the fun will never stop. 

Bonsen and Griffith are grad students at the MIT Media Lab and the
creators of Howtoons, a cartoon that provides one-page, easy-to-follow,
story-driven instructions on how to build science and engineering
projects from readily available materials. Currently the toons are
accessible only through the Howtoons Web site but that may change soon:
Griffith and Bonsen hope Howtoons will one day be merely a legacy body
of "Open Kid Ware," a broader collection of educational products for
kids modeled after MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative. 

Bonsen and Griffith hope to make Howtoons so intriguing that kids tear
themselves away from television and computer screens in order to learn
the old-fashioned way-through hands-on experimentation. 

A graduate student at the Sloan School of Management with a degree in
Electrical Engineering from MIT, Bonsen brings business savvy to the
project. Griffith is pursuing his PhD in programmable cellular assembly
at MIT's Media Lab. With a degree in Metallurgical Engineering from the
University of New South Wales, a masters in Mechanical Engineering from
the University of Sydney, and a masters in Media Arts and Sciences from
MIT, Griffith knows a thing or two about how to use the materials around
him in creative and purposeful ways. Last February he won the $30,000
Lemelson-MIT student prize for designing a virtual "desktop printer" for
low-cost eyeglass lenses for people in developing nations who otherwise
could not afford them. 

Both Bonsen and Griffith were inspired as kids by the imaginative power
of comics and cartoons. Bonsen, born in the Netherlands and raised in
Silicon Valley, was weaned on the classic Adventures of Tintin as well
as Hal Foster's Prince Valiant. He recalls a particular episode of
Prince Valiant in which a young boy is inspired to learn trigonometry in
order to solve his real-world problem of scaling a castle wall. "I
realized right then," Bonsen explains, "that if you give a kid an
inspiring reason to want to know something, he or she will pull out all

Griffith grew up in Sydney, Australia. Like Bonsen, he, too, had an
early interest in both comics and how-to craft books. "A few years ago,
I came across this wonderful series of books called The Boy Mechanic and
Handicrafts for Handy Boys. I thought, wouldn't it be great to
reinterpret them in terms of the materials that are available to kids

It turns out Bonsen was having similar ideas. After the pair met at an
entrepreneurial seminar, Howtoons began to take shape. They employed
professional DC Comics artist Nick Dragotta to bring the concept to
life. Finished toons already demonstrate the marshmallow shooter, hover
hockey, the ice board, the shockwave air cannon, and more. Another two
dozen toons are nearing the final illustration stage, and hundreds more
exist in drawing-board stages viewable on the Web site. 
"Howtoon parties" serve as a laboratory for testing new projects on kids
(and their parents). So far, MIT alumni have been the most visible
participants at the parties, Griffith says. "They are a wonderful
resource because they are a population of people who grew up making
weird stuff." For instance, you can credit alumnus Brian Hughes '71 with
perfecting the Howtoons hovercraft project by substituting a CD-which
kids have in surplus-for the paper plate of the first iteration. The CD,
combined with the clever use of a twist-on bottle cap and a balloon,
makes a craft that can hover for nearly two minutes. 

"The big challenge is turning an interesting project into a one-page
story," Bonsen says. "It is a very demanding format." And unlike the
how-to books of the early 1900s, Howtoons acknowledge that girls like to
build stuff, too. Many Howtoons feature the characters Celine and
Tucker, who engage in a little friendly boy-girl rivalry in order to
build a better mousetrap. Future toons will describe multicultural
projects, including a model of an outrigger canoe from the Marshall
Islands, a helicopter toy popularized in Zimbabwe, and a steamboat from

"There are one billion kids in our target age group worldwide," Bonsen
points out, a figure that reinforces the tagline at the end of many
Howtoons: "The possibilities are endless." Bonsen sees no reason why
Howtoons wouldn't appeal worldwide (like his beloved Tintin). 

And if Griffith and Bonsen have their way, Howtoons will soon be
inspiring kids from all nations to see beyond the world as it is...to
the future they might build themselves.

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