History of STEAM Carnival

  • STEAM Carnival is the brainchild of Los Angeles think tank and talent magnet, Two Bit Circus. A company known for building products at the crossroads of amusement and education, this interdisciplinary team strives to make entertainment more enriching and education more fun.

    Two Bit Circus is led by Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman. Bushnell is an engineer and an entrepreneur who was featured as an inventor on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” (he’s also the son of Atari founder Nolan Bushnell), and Gradman’s background includes experience as a circus performer, professional whistler, roboticist, and inventor.

    STEAM Carnival started as a joint idea dreamed up by these two co-founders, who made their reputations turning science into art. If you caught OK Go’s famous Rube Goldberg machine music video, you’ve seen their work. In fact, they said that video prompted the idea for the carnival.

    “We got constant feedback from teachers and parents thanking us for having inspired their kids about STEAM in a way their schools had failed to do. It got us thinking – can we produce an event that generates that same excitement? Well, everyone loves a carnival, so it seemed like a natural way to tie together the many fun projects we were building, and inspire kids to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, art, and math.” – Co-Founder Eric Gradman for SparkFun

    Billed as “The Carnival Re-imagined,” the high-tech carnival features a big-top tent at its center. With contests, prizes and live entertainment, this carnival also promised fire, lasers, and robots!

    In order to get this project off the ground, the startup launched a kickstarter in 2013, to raise funds to take the Carnival on a mini-tour, moving from Los Angeles to San Francisco. By the end of 2014, they had begun the journey.

    The inaugural Carnival kicked off in October 2014 at the Port of Los Angeles. This Carnival amazed, with 75,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor activations. Tesla coil demonstrations, stilt-walkers, Two Bit Circus arcade games, and oversized yard games inspired kids and parents alike. This 5-day event series included a kick-off Gala which served a one-of-a-kind dinner to 700, a Student Preview Day which brought 2,500 kids out on field trips, a Hack-A-Thon hosted by sponsor IBM, and 2 days of open to the public fun.

    Realizing the vision for the massive undertaking of an event, the Two Bit Circus team wrapped up and went back to work. The gratitude, press, and ‘copy-cat’ events rolled in, and it seemed a movement had swept the nation.  STEAM play-themed events began popping up all around the US, and even the world.

    One year later, the Circus arrived in San Francisco. STEAM Carnival SF opened its doors at Pier 48 as part of the Bay Area Science Festival for a massive high-tech fun-filled weekend, in November of 2015.

    The mission this time?  Bigger, and better – and it was!  Featuring sponsors Cartoon Network and Cisco, and activations from Nasa including fully inflatable spaceships, STEAM Carnival once again took learning to the next level.  This time, the Carnival encouraged kids to “Play, Explode, and Repeat” with a more theme-park like story and a full arcade, build-zone, and even a guidebook that took kids on secret journeys throughout the event. At the end, Dunk Tank Flambe used ‘fire science’ (don’t try this one at home) to roast the Two Bit Circus staff. Ouch!

    Then the creators had to rethink the business model. A traveling Carnival was expensive and exhausting for the creators. The community of educators who attended the STEAM Carnivals were not ready to let it go and they made that very clear to Two Bit Circus! The solution, create a non-profit, The Two Bit Circus Foundation that will work with schools to carry the mission forward and assist those schools in creating their own STEAM Carnival powered by student projects, inventions, and ingenuity.