Learning Technology The Little Computer That Could

The Calliope mini is set to teach German school kids about computer programming. It's being hyped by investors and developers, but educators still need to get on board.
Programming in the classroom as students reach for the stars. Daniel Schuhmann for Handelsblatt [M]

It was the star-shaped device that shone brightest at the German government's recent IT summit - with 25 LED lights, motion, temperature and brightness sensors, speakers, a microphone and engine control. The Calliope mini, a minicomputer which easily fits into an adult's palm, is intended to teach primary school kids about computer programmings.

Ever since the summit - where German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel checked out the device and the heads of Deutsche Telekom and Google voiced their approval - the mini device is having a major moment. It's the German school system's entry into the digital world, after lagging behind for so long. The Calliope mini has diverse functions, and can be used in subjects from mathematics to physics and art. Plus German students will finally have the tech skills they need to succeed in the future labor market.

According to a paper by the ministry of economics, "nationwide implementation is planned for the coming years in cooperation with schools." Calliope mini's developers say the device will start out in the small hands of students across the southwestern state of Saarland in February.

It's no coincidence that the device is ending up in classrooms around the country. The nonprofit company Calliope was co-founded by Gesche Joost, a professor of design research at the Berlin University of the Arts and the government's online ambassador. Calliope's co-founder Stephan Noller is on the "Young Digital Economy" board that advises the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) of which Mr. Gabriel is the leader.

The goal is to provide every third-grade student with a mini every year. Calliope documents

Besides presenting its minicomputer to the public, the Calliope also received with €186,500 ($200,350) from the economy ministry. According to officials, such a project had never applied for state support.

Developers have big plans. "The goal is to provide every third-grade student with a mini every year," according to Calliope's documents. That would be around 700,000 children receiving a €20 device free of charge every year. Because of government support, federal states are likely to receive the little circuit boards without cost now. According to Calliope, it also previously raised money via crowd-funding and donations. Tech giant Google, the Deutsche Telekom Foundation, automotive supplier Bosch and software developers Microsoft and SAP are just a few partners named on the company's website.

In the future, Calliope reportedly wants to generate revenue with mini sales. From mid-February the device can also be ordered through the educational publisher Cornelsen by parents and students who are eager to try it out right away.

The minicomputer is already being tested in two pilot schools in Saarland.  However, teachers and directors of the state's 160 elementary schools involved appear to be less euphoric than the company founders and politicians. Devices are only going to teachers who have undergone special training beforehand, and so far only 26 schools had signed up. However the ministry of education is expecting 100 schools and a total of 6,000 schoolchildren to take part. Calliope is willing to provide up to 8,000 devices free of charge by autumn.

Eight out of 10 elementary schools in Germany have computer access, but only about five laptops for all the students.

One reason for this apparent reluctance could be that there are no computer science teachers in elementary schools, which means educators have to be familiar with technology and its possibilities. According to a study carried out by the IT industry association Bitkom, that's only about 50 percent of them. Around half of German teachers said they would not like to teach new media more often.

Calliope mini also requires a computer connected to the internet, with a USB port or Bluetooth. In many schools, that is unlikely. In Saarland, for example, an average of eight elementary school children share a computer. Eight out of 10 elementary schools in Germany have computer access, but only about five laptops for all the students.

So the non-profit is still a long way from its goal of providing all German third-graders with a device. However Calliope is quick to say it has received many inquiries and pilot projects in Lower Saxony, Bremen and Berlin are coming soon. A spokesperson for Bremen's education senator said talks are still in the “very early stages” with the minicomputer slated to be tested in two schools, while Lower Saxony is currently the devices. Berlin is the farthest along, with “up to 100 teachers to be trained so that the Calliope can be used in around 50 schools,” according to a spokesperson of the senate administration for education.

But if history proves anything about the German education system, this will surely all take awhile.


Dana Heide is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin, focusing on energy policies, small and medium-sized companies and innovation. Stefani Hergert reports on education for Handelsblatt. Christof Kerkmann covers the IT industry for Handelsblatt and is based in Düsseldorf. To contact the author: [email protected][email protected] and [email protected]