Hacker Scouts: Encouraging Kids to Hack!

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Hacker Scout Badge Circuit encourages kids to seek out projects based on their own interests.

Samantha Cook* is an artist, an educator, a hacker, a Maker, a mother, and the Founder of Hacker Scouts. Hacker Scouts began a year ago in Oakland, CA, and is now a national non-profit that encourages children to build, hack, and create on their own terms. The program’s main goal is to give children the necessary skill set to be able to follow through on projects of their own interest and design.

I learned about Hacker Scouts a few weeks ago after the launch of its current KickStarter, which is to raise money to develop a national hacker scouts headquarter in Oakland, California. The kickstarter has 12 days to go, with having earned, as of this writing, $19, 921 of their $35,000 goal.

The thing about Hacker Scouts that stands out, and resonates with children, is that while there are many STEM kits, online classes, and school programs for children, most focus on a particular finished product. Many kits and classes have children follow a set of directions to complete a particular project, not allowing for innovation or freedom. Hacker Scouts focuses on giving children a set of skills in the STEAM areas, and then letting the children decide what they want to do with that skill set.

While that may sound like complete mayhem, there is a successful method to this Making madness. Children are first guided through the building of an Arduino circuit. This gives the kids a base set of skills including soldering, coding, and even sewing. Once this skill set is achieved, kids are free to move on. They can come to Open Lab, where mentors and experts are ready to help them with any project that they bring in. They can also chose from available kits or organized projects. The outcome of the kits and projects is up to the child. No finished product is “wrong.” The emphasis is skill and confidence building.

Young Hacker Scouts working on their Arduino circuits. Used with permission from Hacker Scouts.

I wanted to learn more about the program, and its evolution, so I talked with Founder Samantha Cook this past weekend. Here are some highlights from our chat.

GeekMom: Could you describe HackerScouts for those unfamiliar with Hacker Spaces, the Hacker Movement, and your organization?

Samantha Cook: Hacker Scouts is a nonprofit organization focused on STEAM education and skill building for kids and families. Hacking is a form of modification–it is taking something and changing it to fit your needs. My husband and I are part of the Maker community in Oakland, and I have a background in education. We saw a need for a new approach to introduce, and support, making and hacking, especially with children. We believe that the next generation needs to go beyond making, and hack their own education. They need to be able to adapt to new technology, think in creative and innovative ways, and value collaboration and sustainability.

We accomplish this through programs that are designed to support intellectual and social development, while allowing kids to build confidence and control their education. Currently we have three programs: Open Lab (all ages, open to the public), Guild (weekly group, ages 8-teen), and Sparks (weekly group, ages 4-7). We are also starting to add modifications to our programs, new programs, and workshops that will support teachers in integrating STEAM and making into the classroom. In a year, we have gone from one location (Oakland) to over 30 nationally and we are growing! We also publish all of our programs open source online.

“We believe that the next generation needs to go beyond making, and hack their own education.”
Image used with permission from Hacker Scouts.

GM: Your formal educational background is in Art History. Tell me a bit about your journey to becoming a Hacker.

SC: I studied Humanities, Art History, and Archaeology as an undergraduate, and then went on to get a Masters in Museum Education. I started teaching when I was 16 and I have always been interested in how people learn. Museums ended up being a wonderful vehicle through which I could really explore informal learning. I was not really interested in technology before I met my husband, but, I married a geek and it was inevitable. I am now learning new skills and concepts. It is empowering and exciting. I think that is how many of the families who come to us feel when they learn something new. So I understand, and it is my pleasure to be a catalyst to that experience for them.

GM: What prompted you to start Hacker Scouts?

SC: After my second son was born, I decided to work freelance for a while in Washington, DC, with a variety of museums until we moved back to California. While freelancing, I taught in schools. I saw how the children loved the hands on learning that I brought into the schools, and I saw that schools were not encouraging enough self-directed learning for kids. I now have three kids and we have been involved in a variety of programs and classes that touched on STEM concepts and skills. However, they never gave a thorough education, they never built community, and they never focused on what each of my kids wanted out of the experience. So, I decided it was time there was a program available to all kids that did.

GM: What do you think it is about HackerScouts that has gotten kids so excited?

SC: It is not hard to get kids excited about making. What is different about us is our emphasis on mentoring (both adult to kid mentorship and peer to peer mentorship) and the ability to individualize our program to each kid’s personal goals. We provide a clear structure with activities meant to teach real, relevant skills that kids can use for their own ideas, their own dream projects. We don’t ever ask if it’s possible, we figure out how to get them there and support them, empower them. We don’t want them to simply follow directions or to only understand a concept or skill in a specific context, so we built an approach that would allow them to control their learning and make each decision connected to their personal vision. That is not an experience most kids get on a regular basis.

GM: Tell us a bit about the current Kickstarter.

SC: Our Kickstarter is so important. We have been partnered with a space in Oakland for a year but we have outgrown it, it is not ideal for kids and families, and our access to it is extremely limited. This Kickstarter will not only help us to be able to expand our programs locally, but it will give us the equipment and materials to build more programs, activities, and badges that we then release open source to everyone else. So, while it is located in Oakland, it benefits anyone who is a part of our program anywhere, or who uses any of our online resources. We offer everything we do for free or low cost. In order to keep doing that, we now need the support of our community, or anyone who thinks this kind of education is relevant and important. We are also documenting the process of building a hackerspace for kids and families, which is a unique kind of space, so that we can help others who want to do the same.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Samantha how she balances homeschooling her three young children and working full time for Hacker Scouts. She told me that mornings are family time. No phone calls, no email. She focuses completely on her kids as they learn together. The afternoons are open for work. If her kids are playing and occupied, she will open her laptop. She will also tell her children when she needs time to work from home. There are two other factors that really helped her success: her community, and the fact that she has created a family-friendly work space. Her friends will drive her kids to afternoon classes, park meet-ups, or field trips if she needs a few hours of uninterrupted work time. Additionally, her children come with her to work and are very involved in Hacker Scouts. Her eldest is a mentor, her middle child helps the youngest Hacker Scouts build paper rockets, and her four-year-old has even found ways to help out. The kids can also hack or create art while she is working and they get to test out project prototypes.

If you are interested in the program, check out their website to see if one of the now 30 branches is local to you. If you yourself are inspired, you can contact Samantha and her colleagues to find out how to start a local chapter yourself.

*Note: Samantha Cook is an Occasional Contributor to GeekMom.

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