Changing students’ relationship to technology to create a new literacy  

GUEST COLUMN | by Chelsea Moll

SparkFun Electronics Going On TourNothing compares with the moment you understand something new for the first time. In fact, we at SparkFun are so addicted to that burst of insight that we started a company dedicated to making that moment accessible to more people. In 2009, we created a Department of Education, and those of us therein share a passion for bringing the “Ah-ha!” moment to everyone, with enthusiasm that borders on maniacal. Not only do we host a number of regular classes at our headquarters in Boulder, CO, we’ve sent our electronics ambassadors to classrooms, libraries, conferences and hackerspaces from one side of the country to another, by plane, car and RV.

There are still many places we haven’t been able to reach, and that’s why this month, SparkFun launched a kickstarter to fund our dream for a National Tour in 2013. If the campaign is successful, we’ll load up an RV with more electronic gadgetry than you can shake a soldering iron at, and head out to bring a year of classes and training to educators in all 50 states (and DC!).

This level of outreach isn’t without its challenges. Aside from inevitable bus breakdowns and road-weary arguments about snack allocations, bringing electronics education to the masses carries with it a specific set of roadblocks that we find ourselves constantly navigating and learning from, both at home and on tour.

The first hurdle we face is “administrative inertia.” Running a school district requires a management structure that encompasses large groups of people. In order to effect change in that structure, you have to move a large mass, and one of the things we’ve learned about moving these large masses is that they move very slowly if you try to push at the top. But, if you are able to go to the classrooms and give people at the classroom level a chance to interact with materials, you’re going to engineer that change much faster than trying to convince an administrator that you, as an outsider, have an idea of value. To achieve that, SparkFun’s challenge becomes allocating the support, time, supplies and personnel to interact with educators on a face-to-face level.

Another issue we’ve encountered when introducing electronics education is a crisis in perception about the cost of what we sell, versus its value. The traditional education vending model is based on suppliers taking knowledge, packaging it, and selling it at an inflated rate. Compared to this model, what we sell is very inexpensive to most educational vendors for what you get. Part of that is due to the open source movement, but because it costs so little, people have a hard time recognizing its value when it doesn’t fit the standard. We’ve found that the only way to fix this crisis of perception is by putting people’s hands on the technology. The idea of selling things to people before they get to use it has been the traditional sales approach, but that doesn’t work as effectively as, say, holding a teacher in-service at our headquarters. If you get the chance to experiment with the technology beforehand, at the very least you’re going to get a primer on what’s current in the world of technology, programming and the open source movement. And at most, you’re discovering a powerful new piece of hardware, and a system that really works in the classroom.

We’ve also experienced challenges on a philosophical level when introducing open source technology. Working with these materials is fraught with navigational challenges; typically, the educational tools that get handed out – systems like LEGO, VEX, Fischertechnik, etc. – are highly-supported and possess a relatively low barrier-to-entry. Platforms like these, while useful for introducing building and coding concepts to younger age groups, don’t necessarily demand the skill base that an open source product does, but they also don’t teach the same way. What we teach is 1’s and 0’s – there are no shiny plastic covers or beautiful designs to what we’re trying to do, which is give people a sort of LEGO for ideas. It demands a whole different attitude toward your relationship to technology.

Currently in America, our relationship with technology is highly consumptive. We’re very skilled at knowing what to buy, where to buy it, and how to get accessories for it. It’s a vendor-based relationship; we don’t personally own our technology, we are administered it. We don’t have ownership at the ground level, and what SparkFun wants is to teach the next generation to create content rather than consume it. We want kids to have self-determined ownership of the technology in their lives. Ideally, this will give them the tools to translate their experience and use the raw materials to tell stories about who they are, but this requires a level of curiosity and motivation that current consumer trends don’t encourage.

Our educational efforts, and the driving force behind our push for a national tour in 2013, are about getting facetime with kids and educators, which is what we see as the best way to overcome these educational obstacles. Once we can sit down with a teacher and show them the power of what a microcontroller does, the rest is easy. It’s about getting our educators in the classroom door so we can say, “Here are these concepts, here’s this tool, this is the new literacy, now go create.”


Chelsea Moll is addicted to the bursts of insight she gets from working for SparkFun Electronics. Write to: