SparkFun Education at Centennial Elementary


On Tuesdays at Centennial Elementary School in Firestone, Colorado a MESA (which means she has to figure out how to teach Math, Engineering and Science all at once) educator named Sarah Bloms teaches fourth and fifth graders various basic aspects of physical computing, which is not your standard elementary school material. Previously, physical computing (or embedded systems) was taught in college and high school courses, not at the elementary school level.

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That’s right, those are fourth and fifth graders programming microcontrollers.

That all changed when Sarah wrote grants to CenturyLink and DonorsChoose as well as raising additional funds in a holiday concert. Sarah then came to SparkFun and took our first Microcontrollers for Educators class. She had experienced good results teaching the kids drag and drop programming with Scratch, from MIT. So initially her plan was to teach sensors using PicoBoards and Scratch, but when she saw Modkit she decided she would also teach Inputs, Outputs and maybe even get into Serial Communication with her elementary school kids. Jeff and I told her we would make sure that she got our support when the time came to teach LilyPad microcontrollers because teaching an emerging technology requires a higher teacher to student ratio. For everyone involved it was our first time teaching microcontroller technology to elementary school children during school hours. There were a few glitches, but guess what? The kids love it. They get it and they love it.

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Left to right, William Talbott, Chris Burton, Michelle Shorter teaching at Centennial Elementary School

On 10/2 and 10/9 SparkFun showed up at 10 a.m. and armed only with a bin of back up PC back up laptops, microwave food, cookies and beef jerky, we taught physical computing to the groups of little dudes seated at the desk with names like Prairie Dog, Worm and Sun. Through out the day a group of around twenty eight kids would cycle into the classroom. Sarah would introduce the visiting instructors and then we’d talk about robot brains, plug in our boards(Thanks Leah Buechley and Pete Lewis!), and start flashing lights. Sometimes we’d even get as far as the difference between PWM output on a regular LED versus the common anode RGB LED before the fifty minutes were up and the students had to lineup to march to their other classes. We did this five times each day. Instructors from Production, Technical Support, and Shipping helped teach each round of classes covering either Output or Input, proving me right when I say that everyone at SparkFun is potentially an educator.

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They were bummed when they had to stop programming their LilyPad Dev Boards

In the evening after the first day Sarah came to SparkFun and we all piled into the van again to head to an evening at RAFT in Denver. RAFT was hosting a charity event so after we toured the large warehouse of useful and random educational materials we got to wander around doing science experiments, eating cool (literally) stuff, and talking to educators at various levels in the Denver educational system.

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Chefs from the Inventing Room, including head chef Ian Kleinman, serve innovative food stuffs.

Boys and Girls Club was manning booths and I ran into their head technology educator, Seth Kento. People were exhibiting various educational activities made at RAFT so we made the rounds checking those out as well, including RAFT’s giant functional breadboard. It made me especially proud that the gentleman who exhibited their giant breadboard was Tom Graves, an incendiary device engineer who logged hours at the NASA Manned Space Craft Center from 1965 to 1985. It was fun, and always is, to wander around looking at all the stuff…we even found a llama!

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Left to right, Sarah Bloms, Pam Cortez, llama, Linz Craig and Bobby Chan.

I had been there before when we helped teach a week of workshops at RAFT’s first symposium, but Bobby, Pam and Sarah had never been to RAFT before. None of us had ever met the llama before. Later in the night Colorado Senator Mike Johnston, Lt. Governor Joe Garcia and head of RAFT Stephanie Welsh presented awards to educators who have made a huge positive impact on Denver’s students, schools and communities.

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Tom Graves, who used to blow stuff up in space for NASA, exhibiting a giant functional breadboard.

Sarah Bloms also teaches concepts like Ohm’s Law, voltage dividers and more in depth programming using PicoBoards and Scratch in her class this year. She’s even made noises about teaching with Makey Makey. We at SparkFun Electronics Education are grateful to her for being brave enough to take on the task of being a trailblazer in the educational system. It is amazing seeing kids as young as her students get into physical computing. I always hear educators say, “I wish we had this when I was growing up.” I agree, but really I just wish we had more people like Sarah Bloms, the people at Modkit, RAFT and Leah Buechley who know that kids can learn how to use technology (truly use, not just buy) like this if we work hard enough and give them the chance!


Comments 5 comments

  • This is really cool! So will you guys be working with the teacher throughout the school year, or just this one time?

    Corporate involvement in schools I think is really awesome. Also I do not think we give kids the credit they deserve in what they can learn and accomplish. I remember picking up computers just as soon as the school got a few Atari 800s. Kids can learn really fast, and I was programming quite a bit in my youth. I couldn’t get enough of it.

    I hope the teacher is going to take all this one step further and encourage the kids to take their new knowledge to make something! :)

    Kudos to SparkFun for helping to educate the youth!

    Sam

    • I would be hesitant on saying, “Corporate Involvement.” Years ago, M$ wanted an entire school system (elementary to college) just for the purpose of feeding their recruitment/employment. Sounds like a good idea, right? It’s a private school so it doesn’t need to follow a lot of the funding info, but it’s bad because it doesn’t give students much room to grow into their own (rather into what M$ wanted). Fast forward to today, corporations are trying to integrate themselves into universities to try and teach curriculum a certain away (again accrediation is blocking this).

      Now here’s where my ideas differ from let’s say, Sparkfun’s idea of education. From my understand, Sparkfun wants to open source education for teachers to use in the classroom. This is great and I’m all for it (especially if there are very strict guidelines in the process of doing this), but the problem always comes down to the funding.

      1. There’s not a lot of funding for schools (teachers make bad money and deal with a lot), so any extra set of classes or curriculum for students to follow will always be shot down at budget meetings.
      2. Most teachers have to ask for money or spend it out of their pocket to give the quality education they want to give kids.
      3. The biggest answer I hear from people uneducated in why teachers want this: “Well, they get that in HS/College, why teach it now?”

      To sum up what SFE is doing (which is a good thing, step in the right direction). They are trying to empower students/teachers/parents to teaching electronics earlier in a classroom setting (public/private).

      Here’s my idea.

      1. OSHW should be designing a curriculum that is collaborated from STEM companies in order to get the best of all electronics subjects. This will allow for teachers/schools/budget committees to identify what cost it is and determine where the money comes from.
      2. OSHW should design training material and work with IEEE (and other orgs) to develop training material for all educators to use (elementary to college to non-profit orgs). This should be a cost and be online based (self-paced). The cost should cost very little and/or be free. (This needs funding in order to have incentive for OSHW and other orgs participate)
      3. Public seminars. A school is only as strong as the community is exists in. By educators and OSHW reps that train teachers should be putting on community seminars for people to attend for free. Knowledge is power, and spreading it like TED is a great way to do it.

      Now this isn’t anywhere near complete idea, but it’s a framework to get started.

      Now let’s heed what Vanilla Ice once said, “… Alright stop/Collaborate and listen…”

    • Corporate involvement in schools I think is really awesome.

      I agree completely with the rest of your post, but I can’t let the above sentence go unqualified. “Corporate involvement in schools” covers a lot of different circumstances. When a company or corporation actually does things that expose students to new things and helps them to learn, that’s awesome.

      However, I remember when I was in high school and Coca-Cola “donated” some scoreboards (that also had big logos on them) in order to be able to have more soda machines in and around the school. That’s… not so awesome because it didn’t do much to improve anyone’s education and was primarily self-serving. I’m not implying I believe things like Coca-Cola are morally wrong or anything, but they should never be confused or conflated with real contributions to education.

      Edit: On a more general note, it’s great to see kids being exposed to engineering and technical applications this early. Not only can this be a good thing in-and-of itself; but it shows them there are actual reasons they should learn at least some amount of mathematics and science, even when the learn process can sometimes be difficult or boring.

      • Yeah when I was writing I realized my comment could be taken that way. I really mean “When they come and try to help students learn”. Coca Cola comes in and give you a free score boarn AND new vending machines, It’s just a big win-win for them. How do they go wrong?? Advertising in the school (which should not be allowed), and creating more sugar/nutrasweet addicts.

  • funny coincidence, I’m starting with scratch for 4th, 5th, and 6th with 5th and 6th working toward microcontroller programming in C by the end of the year.


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