SparkFun Education's National Tour traveled from Virginia, down through Florida, up to Nebraska, back down to Arkansas and then home to Colorado, teaching microcontroller technology all the while. Mini Coopers, Open Source Hardware, LEDs, John B., flamethrowers and balance bikes.... Oh my!
From October 7th to November 11th SparkFun's RV rolled through the "Southern" portion of our National Tour. I'll bet you guys didn't realize that Nebraska was in the South, did you? Ok, I'll admit, I tacked on a couple other stops in order to wrap up the National Tour and get everyone the workshops on (or as close as possible) the dates they chose. Please save your comments about the Traveling Salesman Problem, I heard plenty of them on the road.
This leg of the Tour looked a little different than my other Tour legs. For one thing it lasted six weeks, had two different crews, ended in Colorado and we had a guest at the very beginning! When my crew and I touched down in Washington Dulles Airport we met up with my buddy, Solomon King, from Uganda. Solomon and I had previously taught a bunch of workshops together and he was due some vacation time so we worked out a way he could hang out with us Funions for a couple of days before he headed down to Texas. After collecting various bags we wandered outside and waited for Jeff and his crew to show up with the RV so we could hand off keys, give high fives and head out towards our first workshop.
Our first workshop was a collaboration with the University of Virginia Curry School of Education at the Laboratory School for Advanced Manufacturing. Later that day we got a chance to tour the University of Virginia’s Center for Technology and Teacher Education and see what they are up to. We were very impressed with their cross pollination of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, material science and art. The various guitars and basses strewn about the lab were a testament to the combination of logic and creativity.
During some of our down time we went an apple orchard so that Solomon could experience that cliché aspect of fall in America. While at the K.O.A. in Wytheville there was also a Mini Cooper convention, which meant that our campsite was right next to the largest collection of Mini Coopers we had all ever seen. Very fortuitous since, second only to Jeeps, the Mini-Cooper is one of Solomon’s favorite types of cars. After gorging on hotdogs, Smores, pumpkin butter, reminiscing about strangely shaped tiny cars and teaching a bunch of super smart kids at the SouthWest Virginia Governor’s School we piled back into the RV and drove back to the D.C. area. The Governor’s School students really showed us a thing or two. In response to our challenge of adding another SIK circuit to the “World’s Worst Dubstep Instrument” project we saw all sorts of interesting things. The one that stuck out the most for me was the student who attached the motor as an input and controlled the amount of distortion in his instrument by spinning the shaft of the motor, thus creating an analog input signal. Very cool.
After dropping Solomon off at the airport we programmed and sewed some technology with the ever friendly people at Art at the Center before rolling down to South Carolina. I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for South Carolina, maybe it’s because IT-oLogy (who have a similar mission statement to us) always treats us so well when we visit, maybe it’s because some really cool tech is coming out of the state or maybe it’s because Columbia is such a nice state capital… regardless of the reason, Hunt Meadows Elementary School did not disappoint us. Talk about some sharp kids! We taught these Elementary School age kids Arduino basics with our SIK. Not only did they get it, but also they loved it! This is a testament to what happens when there is supportive structure for tech learning. Because the kids had experience with Scratch in their Coder Dojo we were able to teach them concepts that I didn’t really see until high school and college! Needless to say, I alerted our buddies in Columbia to the impressive foundation that Hunt Meadows Elementary School had in place, hoping that the rest of the state, and nation even, will follow in their footsteps. You’ll have to excuse me if I seem more than a little enthusiastic; their educational scaffolding goes light years towards my personal goal of teaching voltage dividers, variables and Boolean logic in elementary schools.
Next up were some stops in Florida at Stetson Universityand a place called Starbot Inc.. At Stetson University we showed up bright and early so that we could be a part of their University’s morning newscast. Needless to say we were a little confused. There were cheerleaders. There were news anchors. There were free breakfast goodies. And there was the Stetson mascot, John B. strutting around with our sleepy driver and RV in the background. After Angela, our E-Textile Education Specialist, explained her wearable technology on air we went on teach a very successful workshop. Afterwards we wandered around downtown with the Stetson professors and even managed to snag some chocolate covered bacon at a local sweet shop. The chocolate covered bacon was not documented, we were afraid its glory might break your monitor.
Starbot Inc. was another place that exceeded our expectation for tech ed. Tom Bales, a man with plenty of engineering experience, teaches all sorts of robotics technology to kids, teachers and parents in his community. Again, due to the Starbot teams work we were able to hit the ground running and teach some fairly young kids text based microcontroller programming and basic electrical engineering. By the end of the workshop some of the kids were teaching each other as well as the educators who were attending the workshop. If you’re in the Miami area and you’re into robots of any sort you should look up Starbot Inc., they are incredibly friendly, very knowledgeable and chocked to the gills with cool hardware and tools.
Then we shot up to Georgia to teach at Hart County High School. There we were once again reminded of how important it is to have the whole school staff on board when teaching a technology in a school system for the first time. Their computers were hosted through a virtual desktop and without the help of their administrator we would have not been able to actually conduct a workshop. Lucky for us he was there and able to address the problems that we found during setup, immediately.
After finishing up in Georgia we drove back down to Florida. It was time to swap out three of the crew members for fresh Funions. I did airport taxi service and read a little between their flights. The new crew and I Then we taught two half day workshops at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. In the morning we taught undergraduates, then in the afternoon we taught a slightly abridged version of the workshop that was open to the public. After the workshops I wound up poking around in their robotics labs with a bunch of fellow geeks. Wow. There was a fairly large amount of SparkFun product in their various projects… and they were some really cool projects. My favorite was their mono-copter. It was a single copter blade with another stabilizing rotor in the hilt of the blade. The guys in the lab told me that the inspiration came from maple tree seeds. I knew exactly what they were talking about having played with these seeds as a little kid. If you look carefully you can actually see a little bit of that kid in the picture where I’m wielding the mono-copter like a machete.
Our next two workshops were based on e-textiles and we taught all ages at both the Emerald Coast Community of Makers in Pensacola and in conjunction with The Tinkering Studio at the Museum of Discovery in Arkansas. At both locations educators, parents and students were amazed at how easy it was to use ArduBlock to program a microcontroller. We spent most of the workshops teaching programming and only sewed an LED at the end of the workshop to give people an idea of where to begin sewing with electronics. We did this because most people want more time to program their LilyPad Dev than we have in one day, but it’s important that they be able to sew when the times comes. It was interesting to watch the younger students start in ArduBlock and then of their own accord move to the text based programming when they stumbled upon a problem they couldn’t solve in ArduBlock.
On our way up to Nebraska we stopped in Kansas City for some down time that happened to coincide with Halloween. We also checked out some really cool jazz spots with excellent food while in the city. I bought a cheap robot mask and sewed some red LEDs into the eyeballs. (Extremely scientific studies show that sewing LEDs into the eyes of anything is creepy. Halloween is one of the few times this is acceptable.) John Trepke’s costume seemed incredibly pertinent because, after all, the tour was almost over.
Up in Nebraska we taught some workshops thanks to Fat Brain Toys at the Omaha North Magnet School and an intimate workshop at the Strategic Air and Space Museum. After the workshops we got to tour the Fat Brain Toys facility, which was really useful for our receiving manager, who happened to be the driver for this leg of the tour. We had a little down time in Nebraska between workshops and we wandered down to Lincoln, Nebraska for some food. Somehow, we wound up driving by the stadium just as a hail-mary pass resulted in an epic win for the Cornhuskers. The decibel levels shot up and the streets filled with football fans proudly wearing their red gear. Even though we fit in easily with our bright red RV, we decided to take refuge in a local steakhouse.
November 5th found us at the Faith Lutheran School teaching Scratch to bunch of incredibly attentive elementary school kids. Despite their young age and lack of previous experience we were able to touch on everyone of the PicoBoard sensors as well as hook up some advanced sensors and animate squishing a Scratch character when the kids pushed (or in some cases, slammed) hard enough on the force pressure sensor.
After that workshop we drove through the night down to a K.O.A. near our CEO’s old highschool, the Oklahoma School of Science and Math. We gave a workshop and then just after lunch the whole school piled into an auditorium to hear Nate speak about his experiences at SparkFun and OSSM. The students curiosity was piqued by the timeline of SparkFun with events such as the FBI subpoena and the cease and desist legal request. In turn we SparkFunions got to hear about the 6 foot chaotic water wheel Nathan and his buddy built in their dorm room; complete with 55 gallons of water, a clear indication of Nathan's future running a company that questions the rules. After the presentation Nathan sat in on the second half of our workshop and I was surprised to hear him remark at one point that I was pointing out a technical aspect of Arduino that he was unfamiliar with. Despite the fact that it’s on one of the “Welcome new Funions!” slides at SparkFun orientation I had forgotten one of the main pillars of any technical (and many non-technical) field. From the top down, we at SparkFun really enjoy and value learning along with the community that it engenders.
We wish we could have stayed longer to find out more about Nate’s adventures in high school but the very next day we had to be back in Kansas City at the Science City in Union Station for a workshop the next morning. We knew one of the guys at Science City through a Missouri 4-H Robotics Conference and Kansas City didn’t let us down. The workshop went very smoothly and afterwards we got a chance to check out the Museum as well as Union Station. The Museum is going to be using some of the hardware from the workshop to create and refurbish some exhibits. Here are a couple pointers for anyone else who is interested in doing something like that. That night I stopped by one of the HackerSpaces in Kansas City, HammerSpace. I was especially impressed by their playroom. It was inspiring to see a Space that provided a room for future tinkerers and hackers to play in while the adults created animatronics and remote controlled flame-throwers.
Our final workshop on this leg of the trip took place in Fayetteville, Arkansas at the Arkansas College of Engineering. The population was a mixture of teachers, grad students and middle school kids. At this point we were running mainly on the coffee and goodies graciously supplied by our buddy, Erik. Our RV driver took a much-needed nap while we talked about inputs, outputs and voltage dividers. After getting some free t-shirts (My coworker Jeff claims he does this job just for the free t-shirts.) from Erik we filled up on Pho and hit the road back to Colorado. Taking turns driving through the night we made it back in time for breakfast the next day. Which is important. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching Soldering, Intro to Arduino, E-Textiles, or Android related microcontroller tech, always start your day off with a solid breakfast.