What could be cooler for an aspiring scientist or engineer than a hands-on project working with and learning about electronics and optics? How about one where each student ends up with his or her own digital camera.

Such is the vision of Shree Nayar's BigShot, which the chair of Columbia University's computer science department has been carefully cultivating since 2006. Nayar, with help from some of his graduate students, has already developed a dozen prototypes of the build-it-yourself BigShot camera, an associated educational and social-networking Web site, and several successful pilot tests with children around the world. Now he is ready to take this endeavor to the next level by finding someone who can manufacture, distribute and market the camera to parents and educators.

"I'm looking for someone that can package the BigShot as an educational kit, not as an inexpensive toy," Nayar says, adding that after participating in a toy fair in New York City last month he is seeing some interest in a toy or learning technology company licensing the BigShot concept.

The camera looks a bit like a science experiment, which is the point. The front cover of the plastic prototype comes in colors inspired by M&M candy. The camera's face features a lens wheel that allows the photographer to shoot normal, panoramic or stereoscopic 3-D images. The images all look the same through the viewfinder, regardless of the lens setting. Instead, a sensor placed behind each lens provides information in the header of each digital picture file to tell the software how each image should look when it is downloaded to a computer. There is also a white crank on the camera's side to provide power for the electronics—except for the LED flash, which is AA battery–powered.

The back cover is transparent, providing a view of the gadget's gearbox, dynamo, processor chip and circuits, enabling young users to better understand the relationships among the different components. "I felt it should be something you can look into and hold and put together," he says. "That's important because we're in a time where electronics have become more and more mystified."

A shot (in the arm) for education
The BigShot is a kit designed for eight- to 14-year-olds, with more than a dozen individual pieces that must be assembled for the camera to function. Nayar envisions teachers or parents combining the building of the camera with lessons about each component's underlying function.

Nayar decided early in the development process that the camera would be only part of the project. He worked with Columbia computer science graduate students Guru Krishnan, Brian Smith and Vi Xuan Linh to produce a Web site rich in educational content. For example, there is a "Build" page on the BigShot Web site that takes the builder step-by-step through the process of assembling the camera and a Flash-animated "Learn" page that describes in detail how each part works.

"It's not about kids soldering together all of the parts but rather the idea that you may be able to hold it and have more of a feel for the underlying engineering," Nayar says. It's a little bit like a Lego kit at this point, although the design could change, he adds. "Now that I have kids one thing is very obvious—holding [their] attention is 90 percent of the job when you teach," he says. "If you can get kids—especially those who think they will never understand the technology or underlying science—to touch and feel things, you buy yourself a lot of time and flexibility in terms of teaching."

The build-and-learn aspect of BigShot has a lot of appeal, says Margaret Honey, CEO of the New York Hall of Science in Queens, N.Y., a hands-on, family-oriented science and technology museum. Honey met with Nayar last fall to talk about his project. "I've seen lots of technology and engineering projects throughout my career, and I was really taken with this," she says. "The strategy of engineering this device so that kids can fairly easily put this together without starting from scratch is incredibly smart. I love that kids end up with a working camera and that the assembly of the project is just the beginning."

Nayar first conceived of the BigShot after watching the 2004 film Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids. In the documentary filmmaker Zana Briski befriends some of the children of the women that she and fellow filmmaker Ross Kauffman went to Kolkata (Calcutta) to photograph. Briski ended up giving some of the children cameras and teaching them photography. Nayar wanted to provide the same type of eye-opening experience to other children. In some of the areas he visited, "we found that some of the kids had never even taken a photo before." In addition to testing out the camera's appeal in New York City, he has traveled to rural India, Japan and Vietnam to see what children there thought of the camera.

Social networking
Earlier this month, Nayar and his team added an online quiz game called BrainShot to their Web site. The game, which they developed internally, already features more than 1,500 questions that challenge kids in the areas of science, photography and geography. Regardless of whether they use the BigShot camera, players can compete against one another and earn medals (digital, of course) when they perform well. The BigShot site also now features a world map that marks the different countries where BrainShot players live.

A sister site called BigShot Connect is also in the works. "The original goal was to make this a Flickr for kids, but we realized this is a tricky business," Nayar says. "You don't want to reveal the identity of the kids or the age or other sensitive information about the kids participating in the site." The plan for now is for Nayar and his team to review images and captions to be posted to the site and reject any that are "not in good taste." Of course, if the site grows as Nayar hopes it will, he realizes there will be too many photos for him to manage and that he will have to come up with some other plan.

Nayar has already received some high-profile endorsements for his project. Google, which funds more than 300 education research projects annually, awarded the Columbia professor $80,000 in early 2009 to continue the development of the BigShot. "A lot of what we're doing is trying to build relations with faculty and fund things that might not be funded by National Science Foundation or other places," says Jeff Walz, Google's university relations director, who adds that the BigShot in many ways takes him back to his own childhood. "When I got toys, the first thing I did was take them apart," he says. "Erector Sets, Legos, Heathkit robots—all of those can be taken apart and put back together and learned about."

Google has no economic stake in Nayar's work but "would love to see the project grow," says Kristen Morrissey, Google's principal of new business development.

View the BigShot slide show