10 Mar 2014
Young children enter schools with vivid imaginations, enthusiasm, and unfettered fearlessness that harnessed produce inventions that are as exciting as those from the most innovative, corporations are. I am a founder of Maker Kids, a program that engages children in STEM through Making, and a new start-up Makeosity that will expand on the success of Maker Kids through online means. I have been working with hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in New York City elementary and middle schools for the past six years immersing kids in the research, design and production of items big and small that often require a basic knowledge of electronics and sometimes of simple machines, such as levers, to construct a water pump. In order to help students tackle complex engineering tasks, we first build their knowledge base, such as working with basic circuits (simple, parallel, Squishy, Snap and Lil Bits), and then progress to integrating them into their own product design (such as brushbots, propeller racers and then energy scooters).
Three years ago, in one elementary school, I was lucky enough to hire a student’s father who was an extremely talented carpenter. He taught our fifth grade students how to build go-karts from scratch and then scooters. I was on a cross-country trip shortly thereafter and read about a new startup, in an airline magazine, founded by women that were researching ways to harness energy from play. I contacted them the next day and about a month later, a team of engineers and designers came to the school to see a new wooden scooter that our carpenter dad was building with the fourth graders and work on sketches of a prototype of an energy producing, harnessing and storing scooter with our Maker Kids.
When the engineers had gone, a group of students (mostly girls) continued to refine the design for the prototype and then through trial and error, we were able to build a prototype with gears attached to the scooter’s axle connected to parts modified from a Snap Circuit kit. These included a hand crank generator and re-chargeable battery that we bolted to the scooter. We ripped the hand off the crank generator, exposed the gear from the crank and lined it up to the teeth of the gear on the axle. When the scooter is ridden, the axle turns the gear, which turns the crank and generates energy that is stored in the re-chargeable battery. Eventually, portable electronic devices can be plugged directly into the generator for re-charging.
The students presented their prototype onstage at World Maker Faire and I chuckled to watch audience members’ jaws drop when they heard the group of ten-year old girls and one boy describe their design and vision for the energy scooter. They were amazed! I wasn’t. Anything is possible when we, with a little bit of mentoring and encouragement, support children to realize the fancies of their wildest imaginations. That’s the stuff that dreams are made of and the foundation on which great American industry has always been laid.