DIY movement Sparks Engineering Education

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SparkFun's upcoming National Education Tour should help engineering education in the long run.

SparkFun, a DIY electronic kit maker in Boulder, Colorado is making a huge effort to see that more kids and educators learn about electronics, embedded control and programming with their forthcoming National Education Tour.  The tour is designed to expose as many K-12 students and teachers as possible to the joy and fun of soldering, programming and circuit-building.  Hopefully this will lead to more high school graduates heading to college to learn engineering and computer science.  An early start like this has proven to be the catalyst for many in engineering today.  As an example, ham radio was previously, and still is today, a driver of interest in electronics and engineering.

Last week, I spoke with Lindsay Levkoff, SparkFun’s director of education, who said: “We’re trying to bring a hands-on, kinesthetic style of learning back into the classroom.  I think the most important aspect of this technology and model of learning is that it gives students a chance to have more lasting memories of the information they’re being taught. Rather than just talking about what electricity is, we’re providing a hands-on experience for the student, which creates a deeper understanding of what they’re trying to learn.”

During the tour, SparkFun’s Department of Education (http://learn.sparkfun.com/) will teach workshops to students of all ages, as well as teachers, librarians, after-school coordinators and other educators, showing how electronics can be a vital part of education.The tour will provide teachers nationwide with the ability to introduce current, relevant technology and programming concepts into their classrooms. SparkFun hopes that by providing access to these tools, interest and education in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (STEAM) will improve across all age groups.

What SparkFun does is send out a team of instructors in a special RV to tour the country putting on an 8-hour workshop at each stop.  SparkFun supplies all the computers and other hardware and software to teach elementary electronic fundamentals, embedded computing and introductory programming.  The tour is expected to run from June through November.  So far SparkFun has signed up multiple high schools, middle schools, a few community colleges as well as libraries and museums.

 

The cost to book a mobile workshop on the tour is $1,500 for the first 50 stops and $2,500 for each stop thereafter. At each stop, the company will provide a “lab pack” - SparkFun’s comprehensive learning kits - chosen by the coordinator to focus on one of three concepts: programming with Arduino (https://www.sparkfun.com/products/10900?), e-textiles (https://www.sparkfun.com/products/10996?), or Scratch programming with the PicoBoard (https://www.sparkfun.com/products/10311?). Each lab pack includes enough kits for 20-40 students, three instructors, and all the supporting materials needed to teach electronics on your own. Educators will spend the day teaching kits to students or providing professional development for educators, explaining the fundamental concepts of electronics education, and answering any questions. At the end of the day, workshop participants will keep all of the hardware and educational materials, and will be armed with the knowledge and experience to implement electronics education into the classroom.

I have personally played around with SparkFun’s popular Arduino Inventor’s kit and can tell you it is fun.  Something magical happens when a student gets a tediously soldered kit to work or successfully launches a program they wrote.  We need more of this to rebuild the pipeline to engineering schools.


To sign up for a stop on the tour, or to learn more about the National Tour and SparkFun’s Department of Education, visit (https://learn.sparkfun.com/tour).

 

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Lou Frenzel writes articles and blogs on the wireless, communications and networking sectors for Electronic Design. Formerly, Lou was professor and department head at Austin Community College...
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