Maker Movement Hits the Road with SparkTruck’s Cross-Country Tour

SparkTruck, an “educational build-mobile” is traveling across the country bringing unforgettable experiences to kids across the country, with stops in Pittsburgh September 12 - 15

If you haven’t been able to attend a Maker Faire yet, don’t despair – the maker movement might just be on its way to you. SparkTruck, an “educational build-mobile” is currently traveling across the country, bringing cool tech tools, exciting projects and an unforgettable experience to kids from Seattle to Manhattan. While it’s not affiliated with The Sprout Fund’s Spark program or this blog, the SparkTruck is making its way to Pittsburgh for four days of making September 12th through the 15th thanks to WQED.

Staffed by a group of Stanford students, the SparkTruck began as an idea for delivering hands-on learning fun to schools in the Bay Area. After a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign surpassed the group’s expectations, they expanded their vision and took the truck on the road. Equipped with a laser cutter, 3D printers and a wide array of learning tools that make tinkering, engaging and creating fun, the SparkTruck team hopes to affect real change. For children who are at a crossroads in their education, the SparkTruck team aims to show them that understanding science can be fun, that they have the ability to envision and innovate, and that, for some students, a STEM career could be the perfect fit for their future.

It’s not hard to see why the Spark Network would take an interest in the SparkTruck. Not only do we share the same vision for using tech tools to engage and enrich students’ lives – we’re also both focused on creating change and “sparking” a love of learning in the lives of kids and their caretakers. We recently had a chance to talk to Jason Chua, who was kind enough to answer our questions from the road somewhere between Las Vegas and Denver. Here’s what he had to say: 

1. Your Kickstarter campaign was a big success, but not all would-be projects are so lucky. What do you think made funders donate to your campaign and what advice do you have for others looking to find crowd-sourced support?

Our success on Kickstarter can be attributed to our friends, family and network that supported us and helped make the right connections for us so we could get timely press coverage and get the word out. I think that people were genuinely excited to see young people take a stab at addressing one of thorniest, yet most important problems our society faces – making education more engaging and effective. One of the pieces of advice that we received when setting up our campaign was to make a really good and concise video. We spent a long time debating how we could tell our story in a way that would be on-brand and finally decided on a cute, crafty “handimation” approach that many bloggers found charming.

2. So much of creating a successful project lies in forming a team of people who share the same passion. How did the SparkTruck team find each other and decide to collaborate? 

The SparkTruck team started off with three masters students in the design program (Eugene, Aaron and Prat) who were looking for a team to work on a thesis project with. Instead of searching for specific skill sets, they recruited people they liked working with, and because of that, our team bonded really quickly. As it turned out, we all ended up having different things we ended up enjoying, which made for a serendipitously balanced team. Because of this closeness, we’ve been able to be open with each other when we disagree on things, and this has led to better clarity as far as how our project has developed.

 3. Would you say the maker movement was a big inspiration behind the SparkTruck? Why do you think making is important for kids and what place do you think it should have in education? 

The maker movement was definitely a big inspiration behind SparkTruck. We think that the “maker mindset” is essential for kids – it’s not just about building physical things, it’s about feeling empowered to go out in the world and create change and impact without waiting for someone to tell them how to do it. Cultivating this “creative confidence” should be a major focus in education. Students need to know that even though many problems they’ll encounter in life aren’t cut and dry, they have the power to prototype their way through failure to come to a solution.

4. The SparkTruck comes equipped with two 3-D printers, a vinyl cutter, laser cutter, sewing machines and a clay oven. What kinds of things do kids usually make with these tools? Which projects seem to engage kids the most?

Kids make all sorts of things with our tools, ranging from vibrating robot creatures, to personalized laser cut stamps, to flying projectiles. We’ve found that anything that moves, sounds dangerous, or flies catches the attention of kids, and everyone regardless of their age loves watching the laser cutter go. As far as engagement, there’s a really cool mental shift you can watch happen when you flip a question on a student and instead of showing or telling them how to do something, you ask them how they think it should be done. It’s fun to see kids realize that they’re in control of their projects and can be the ones to make decisions about how things are done.

5. Has your experience so far been what you’d expected? Have the children you’ve met surprised you in any way?

The experience has definitely been a far cry from what we expected when we first began the project just a handful of months ago. I think that hitting our Kickstarter goal, getting a truck, and being invited to speak at Aspen Ideas Fest, completely overloaded our expectations engine and we learned to take things one day at a time and just live for the journey. As we’ve traveled the country and experienced diverse sets of communities, we’ve been surprised at how similarly excited kids get when you empower them to create.

6. The SparkTruck has been traveling across the country since late June. Does your whole team travel together, or does the on-board crew change? Have you enjoyed the life of nomadic makers?

We have 2 vehicles on the trip (the SparkTruck only seats two people) but we make a big effort to stick together. As a matter of fact, as I’m typing this email from our second vehicle, the Truck is following behind us on our way to Denver. We constantly rotate who gets to travel in each vehicle (our rental car is waaaay quieter at highway speeds) and it’s been a lot of fun watching the scenery change as we drive from region to region. One of my favorite moments from the trip was driving northwest through Washington state on the Fourth of July and watching as desert gave way to mountains which gave way to lush evergreen forest and waterfalls. A definite “America the beautiful” experience.

7. After the SparkTruck’s tour ends in October, what will the future hold?

To be quite honest, we’re not sure yet. We really want to make SparkTruck something that happens every summer with the next bunch of young people and we’re trying to figure out exactly how to do that. You can check out our recent blog post for a bit more on this, but basically we’re trying to build a quantitative and qualitative case for the SparkTruck (and other likeminded projects) to get funding and support in the future.

If you’re living in Pittsburgh, the home base of the Spark Network, you’ll have a chance to see the SparkTruck for yourself when it makes a stop in Pittsburgh on September 12th to the 15. To learn more about when and where you can can catch the SparkTruck, visit WQED’s special event page. For our friends in other cities, you can check out the SparkTruck’s tour dates on their website to see when you can expect the team in your area. If your city isn’t on the list, contact the SparkTruck to arrange a visit. As big fans of the maker movement, we can’t wait to experience the SparkTruck for ourselves. If you or your child has had an experience with the SparkTruck, or if you’ve seen first-hand how similar projects can change the lives of children, tell us about it in a comment below.

Published August 16, 2012