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3:07 am
Sun December 23, 2012

With Growth Of 'Hacker Scouting,' More Kids Learn To Tinker

Originally published on Sun December 23, 2012 10:41 am

Countless kids have grown up with the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts or Campfire Girls, but for some families, the uniforms and outdoor focus of traditional Scouting groups don't appeal.

In recent months, Scoutlike groups that concentrate on technology and do-it-yourself projects have been sprouting up around the country. They're coed and, like traditional Scouting organizations, award patches to kids who master skills.

Ace Monster Toys is a hacker space in Oakland, Calif., where members share high-tech tools. Normally, grown-ups congregate there, working on electronics or woodworking projects. But two Sundays a month, the place is overrun by 50 kids and their parents for the gatherings of a group called Hacker Scouts.

The kids in Hacker Scouts are not breaking into computer networks. They make things with their hands, and at this particular meeting they are learning to solder and are building "judobots," small robots made out of wooden Popsicle sticks.

On this warm fall day, Alicia Davis, 10, is wearing a wool hat she knit herself. As her dad stands nearby, she sews an LED bracelet with conductive thread.

"I've been sewing on little felt pieces with this," Davis explains. "The battery will power the LEDs and light up. It's pretty cool."

Crafting, Computers And The Physical World

Chris Cook, one of the parents active in organizing the Hacker Scouts, serves as president of the hacker space where the Scouts meet. He says the group has expressly targeted kids between the ages of 8 to 14.

"It's old enough where they're ready to start developing skills, [but] they're not so old that they've already been set in their ways," Cook says, "and they're more interested in what their peer groups are doing."

"So, we felt it's the right kind of time to expose them to how to craft with their hands — how to take things from a computer and put them into the physical world," Cook says.

The Hacker Scouts don't wear uniforms, but soon they'll be able to earn something akin to merit badges, made by the kid-friendly DIY electronics company Adafruit Industries.

Badges range from "learn to solder," "aerial quadcopter" and "high-altitude balloon" badges to the "Dumpster-diving" badge — "for when you get dirty but get some free stuff," explains Adafruit founder Limor Fried.

The thought of a bunch of Hacker Scouts Dumpster-diving may be unsettling, but recycling and repurposing are big with hacker groups. Grace McFadden, 11, of Madison, Conn., recently repurposed juice cartons into the soles of a pair of felt slippers, earning her a "salvager badge" from DIY.org, a new website for kids.

The site awards more than 40 badges for skills ranging from bike mechanic to "special effects wizard," and has started producing how-to videos for DIY projects, like a shoebox harp made from a box, a pencil and some rubber bands.

"Right now, I really like making paper airplanes and origami," McFadden says. "I have a whole fleet of paper airplanes." She learned to make them, she says, using an app on her iPod and by looking online.

A Scouting Handbook For Young Hackers

There are now 32,000 kids registered with DIY.org, which plans to organize local clubs around the country. The website even has an animated anthem exhorting kids to "build, make, hack and grow."

The site's chief creative officer, Isaiah Saxon, says the group plans to create the digital equivalent of a Scouting handbook for mobile devices.

"We hope that people's smartphones are eventually the Swiss army knife of our movement," Saxon says. "And that you go out into the woods ... point your phone at a tree and peel it open [to] learn about the wood underneath."

Saxon also plans to offer visual guides and "amazing experiences on the fly through these powerful handheld computers," he says.

As these efforts take off online, the hacker Scout movement is also spreading around the country. Seattle now has a science-focused group called "Geek Scouts," and a couple of tribes — not troops — of "Maker Scouts" are being formed in Milwaukee and Charleston, S.C.

Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter and podcast producer. For links to radio docs, podcasts & DIY stories, visit http://jonkalish.tumblr.com.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A lot of kids grow up participating in the Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts. I remember selling my fair share of Thin Mints. But it's to for everyone, the uniforms, cookie sales, and camping aren't that appealing to some families. So recently, other scout-like groups have been sprouting up around the country, and their focus is on technology, do-it-yourself or DIY projects. These are co-ed and, like the traditional scouting organizations, if you master a skill, you get a patch.

Jon Kalish reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

JON KALISH, BYLINE: Ace Monster Toys is an adult hackerspace in Oakland, California, where members share high-tech tools. Normally, there are grown-ups here working on electronics or woodworking projects. But on a Sunday afternoon, this place is overrun by 50 kids and their parents for the bi-monthly gathering of a group called Hacker Scouts.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If you are doing a Judobot, you can head down the stairs into the room at the bottom of the stairs.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Compressed air rockets at this table.

KALISH: The kids in Hacker Scouts are not breaking into computer networks. They make things with their hand. And at this particular meeting they are learning to solder and building Judobots, small robots made out of wooden Popsicle sticks.

On this warm fall day, 10-year-old Alicia Davis is wearing a wool had she had knitted. As her dad stands nearby, she sits sewing an LED bracelet with conductive thread.

ALICIA DAVIS: I've been sewing on little felt pieces with this. The battery will power the LED's and light up. It's pretty cool.

KALISH: One of the parents, active in organizing the Hacker Scouts, is Chris Cook who serves as president of the adult hackerspace where the Hacker Scouts meet.

CHRIS COOK: We've expressly targeted the eight- to 14-year-olds. It's old enough where they're ready to start developing skills. They're not so old that they've already been set in their ways and they're more interested in what their peer groups are doing. So, we felt it's the right kind of time to expose them to how to craft with their hands, how to take things from a computer and put them in the physical world.

KALISH: The Hacker Scouts don't wear uniforms but soon they'll be able to earn something akin to merit badges. And the badges are made by Adafruit Industries in New York. Becky Stern and Limor Fried showed me a few of their favorites.

BECKY STERN: I like the Quadcopter Badge, so your Aerial Quadcopter. And then this is the High-Altitude Balloon Badge.

LIMOR FRIED: This is the Learn to Solder Badge, so you can learn to solder. We have the Dumpster-Diving Badge for when you get dirty but get some free stuff.

KALISH: The thought of a bunch of Hacker Scouts dumpster diving may be unsettling but recycling and re-purposing are big with hacker groups. A new DIY website for kids is awarding badges for salvaging and foraging. Eleven-year-old Grace McFadden of Madison, Connecticut, used a recycled juice carton as the soles of a pair of felt slippers she made, and got herself a Salvager Badge.

GRACE MCFADDEN: Right now, I really like making paper airplanes and origami. I have a whole fleet of paper airplanes.

KALISH: And how did you learn how to make them?

MCFADDEN: Well, I have this app on my iPod and I just looked online.

KALISH: McFadden shares photos of the stuff she makes on DIY.org - a San Francisco-based website - that awards more than 40 badges for skills ranging from bike mechanic to special effects wizard. The website has started producing how-to videos for DIY projects.

(SOUNDBITE OF A DIY PROJECT VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Shoebox harp.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You'll need a shoebox, some scissors, a pencil and a few rubber bands.

KALISH: There are now 32,000 kids registered on DIY.org which plans to organize local clubs around the country. The website has an animated anthem exhorting kids to build, make, hack and grow.

(SOUNDBITE OF A DIY PROJECT VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Build, make, hack, grow.

CHORUS: (Singing) Build, make, hack, grow. Build, make, hack, grow...

KALISH: DIY.org's chief creative officer, Isaiah Saxon, says they plan to create the digital equivalent of a scouting handbook for mobile devices.

ISAIAH SAXON: We hope that people's smartphones are eventually the Swiss Army knife of our movement. And that you go out into the woods and can point your phone at a tree and peel it open and learn about the wood underneath. And we can provide visual guides and amazing experiences on the fly through these powerful handheld computers.

KALISH: The Hacker Scout movement is spreading around the country. Seattle now has a science-focused group called Geek Scouts. And a couple of tribes, not troops, of Maker Scouts are being formed in Milwaukee and Charleston.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.