MONTPELIER — Ben T. Matchstick wants to get kids thinking inside the box.
The Montpelier-based creative is CEO of Cardboard Teck LLC, which makes the PinBox 3000, a do-it-yourself cardboard pinball machine kit. The kits have become popular education tools that engage students in engineering, design and art.
For more than two decades, cardboard has been Matchstick’s medium of choice.
“Cardboard is the most pliable, bendable, versatile, accessible and cheap material that you’ve ever asked for,” he said in a recent interview.
Matchstick has a performer’s bent. He has worked with the Bread and Puppet Theater, collaborated with Anaïs Mitchell on the award-winning Broadway musical “Hades Town,” and ran arts programming at Langdon Street Cafe in Montpelier with wife Meg Hammond.
In recent years, he has run cardboard-themed camps called Cardboard Chaos and Cardboard Carnival where kids are given free rein to create.
“Kids really naturally gravitate to making things out of cardboard,” he said. “And for us, it’s an easy way to just kind of boost that kind of inspiration.”
A little over a decade ago, Matchstick teamed up with fellow cardboard creative Pete Talbott to launch the Cardboard Teck Instantute, which hosts after school programs, summer camps and artists residencies.
“We were kind of the go-to guys for exciting cardboard inventiveness,” Matchstick said, explaining that their repertoire included puppet shows, giant sculptures and interactive theater performances.
As far back as 20 years ago, Matchstick was using cardboard pinball machines as part of a traveling, interactive puppet show where he would sit inside the machine talking to the player.
PinBox was a natural evolution.
Matchstick and Talbott had seen other attempts at making cardboard pinball machines, but wanted to approach it from a different angle.
“Instead of making one single design, we decided to make a platform that other people would be inspired to create their own games,” Matchstick said. “We kind developed the interchangeability of the playfields, and that kind of inspired a whole wave of educational ideas.”
Six years ago, Matchstick and Talbott turned to Kickstarter, where they raised about $10,000 for a first run of 2,000 units.
A second Kickstarter campaign netted more than $100,000 and allowed them to scale up production.
Matchstick all PinBox kits are designed in Vermont and manufactured in Philadelphia.
Since then, they’ve been marketing the PinBox 3000 to educators, families, makers and gamers.
Matchstick compares the construction of a PinBox to Legos — it’s something you build from the bottom up following a specific system. For Legos, it’s interconnecting blocks; for the PinBox, it’s slots and tabs.
In the classroom, students should have a working pinball machine with a blank play board after several hours or so. After that, they can customize it using whatever materials they have on hand — paper, recyclables, electronics, etc. The Cardboard Tek YouTube channel offers a variety of tips (bit.ly/pinbox3k).
“You are experimenting with a very hands on approach of design-based learning,” he said. “You start to see the world in a different way.”
Matchstick said the PinBox lends itself to right brain, left brain and kinesthetic learners. Some kids like the physical construction of the machine, others like the creation of the design elements and others just want to play it.
“We really deemphasize the idea of scoring and, actually, put a lot of emphasis on story building,” Matchstick said, explaining that a game designer thinks of a player as the reader of a story.
“So they’re the hero of the story and we want them to interact with the different chapters, the different modes, of the story,” he said. “It’s really encouraging this kind of creation of a nonlinear narrative.”
Matchstick estimates the PinBoxes are used in about 300-400 classrooms, maker spaces and other learning spaces.
While the coronavirus pandemic has posed new educational challenges to educators, Matchstick believes the PinBox can be a helpful tool for inspiring creativity and offering a learning opportunity that doesn’t involve sitting in front of a screen.
“This really demonstrates that you can have ownership over your own creations and be responsible for your own learning,” he said. “So it is really a tool to get students to teach themselves how to self learn.”
Caty Wolfe, a teacher at the Center for Technology in Essex, discovered the PinBox at a summer professional development class.
“I instantly knew I wanted to bring them back to my classroom,” she said. “It was a natural fit for my curriculum, as Ben and Pete are a great product development story and have an amazing, cleverly engineered product.”
Wolfe teaches a program for sophomore students called PreTech2: IDEA, that focuses on IT, digital media, engineering and the arts.
She said she uses the PinBox as a graphic design and electronics/coding summative project where students design a game “with the outcome being game assets and design elements that could be reproduced by a customer.”
“It brings together all aspects of my curriculum as a culminating event,” she said.
Wolfe said her students love the PinBox and “are 100% engaged” in the process.
“It is such a non-threatening platform since it is cardboard, but it fuels incredible ideas,” she said.
Wolfe explained that the PinBox is a useful tool for creatively applying education standards.
“It provides opportunities to teach and practice the transferable skills of collaboration and communication,” she said, adding that it also can be used to show content knowledge.
Matt Chandler has been using PinBox kits in the classroom for more than five years. He teaches math and science at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington.
“Project-based learning allows students to think creatively and critically about the content,” he said.
Chandler said designing the PinBox has become “a highlight” that students look forward to each year. He said the it complements the engineering and design work they already do in class and fits with Next Generation Science Standards.
As part of class, Chandler asks students to model part of the human body system through PinBox design.
“This has forced them to think critically about their understanding of the human body systems and how to build something that symbolizes that function,” he said.
During the pandemic, Chandler sees the PinBox as a way to create meaningful activities “when our time for face-to-face teaching is so limited.”
“If students are working remotely, this will truly engage them in a creative critical thinking task,” he said.
One topical idea Chandler had was to create a “Pandemic PinBox” where a marble was the COVID-19 virus and the player had to “eradicate” it from the game board by sinking it into “Fauci’s basket” or “the CDC’s black hole.”
“The Pinbox is so versatile that any topic can be made into a Pinbox,” he said.