Gadgets

A tinker, a tailor, an arduino board maker: SparkFun sets off on electronics education tour

Plenty of kids (and adults) out there would love to build a breakfast-making robot, if only they knew how. Today, SparkFun is launching a nationwide tour to inspire students and teachers with a “passion for electronics” so they can learn how to make robots as well as twinkly fairy wings, amplifiers, and more.

SparkFun is an online retail store and hub for electronics projects. It sells “bits and pieces”  like capacitors, cellular antenna cables, and various other mysterious-looking parts to make successfully building a GPS device or a Wi-Fi Dongle possible to the average person. The company’s “Department of Education” features online tutorials and classes to guide people through their projects.

The National Education Tour intends to stop in every state in the U.S.. The program will teach web development, soldering, circuit-building, and more in an effort to demonstrate that electronics are an important component of education, touching on science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics.

“We’re trying to bring a hands-on, kinesthetic style of learning back into the classroom,” said Lindsay Levkoff, SparkFun’s director of education, in a statement. “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.”

At the same time as America’s test scores in math and science are worryingly low, the “maker” movement is taking off. Hardware is having its heyday due to advancements in technology like 3D printing, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, and a growing interest among investors, entrepreneurs, and consumers in the next cool gadget. SparkFun’s mission is to make science education more relevant by introducing current and actionable technology into the classroom.

“There’s a whole different experience that seems to go on when kids see that LED blink for the first time,” said educational outreach coordinator Jeff Branson. “It’s not just a flat screen anymore. It’s something that’s really happening in the real world. It’s made the material come alive for the kids. And for teachers, it renews their enthusiasm about tackling some pretty thick topics.”

Workshops will be open to students of all ages as well as teachers, librarians, after-school coordinators, community organizers, and others. The person spearheading the effort will choose one of three concepts to focus on — programming with Arduino, e-textiles, or Scratch programming with the PicoBoard. Each “lab pack” includes enough kits for between 20 to 40 students, three instructors, and supporting materials. The workshops last for a day and either entail teaching the students or providing professional training to the educators. After that, it is up to the instructors and the students to continue.

SparkFun was founded in 2003 by Nate Seidle, an electrical engineering student who was frustrated by how difficult it was to find electronics parts he needed. He built SparkFun to address that need. Now 10 years later, the company sells over 2,000 components and has 138 employees. This national tour not only seeks to inspire people in his wake, but also raise awareness about SparkFun and sell its products. It is based in Boulder, Colo.

Photo Credit: rumtopf/FLickR

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