Q&A: 'Build-mobile' spreads creativity across the country

Students and graduates from Stanford's d.school created SparkTruck to teach kids how to brainstorm, prototype and create. Then they drove it 15,000 miles to see if it worked.

If there's an award for Most Education-Based Joy Spread by a Moving Vehicle, we assume the SparkTruck has already been nominated. (And if there isn't such an award, let's get on that. It would make a fun trophy.)

Created by Jason Chua and Eugene Korsunskiy, SparkTruck serves as a mobile prototyping shop, a.k.a. "educational build-mobile," for kids. From July through October 2012, Chua, Korsunskiy and a handful of other students and graduates of Stanford University's d.school motored across the country in it, covering more than 15,000 miles and running more than 200 workshops for some 2,600 elementary- and middle-school students. Stocked with 3D printers, laser cutters, glue guns and plenty of plastic googly eyes, the SparkTruck crew set out to bring hands-on building — a casualty of budget cuts in many schools — back to kids.

The day after returning the SparkTruck to Stanford, where it will live until its next voyage, Chua spoke with us about teaching thousands of kids to brainstorm, prototype and create.

Where did you get this idea to create a "build-mobile"?

As part of a class at the d.school called Design Garage, we had a year to work on basically whatever [design project] we wanted. We started off by going around observing and talking to teachers, students and parents. We saw that lots of hands-on opportunities were leaving the classroom. We wanted to do something to bring hands-on, exploratory exercises back into schools.

Separately, we also thought it would be really fun to do something based around a truck because then you can drive it around. We were thinking about these two different things, and one day we realized: Why can't we just do them together at the same time? That's when we decided to run hands-on workshops out of the back of a truck.

Was the idea always to spend four months doing this, or did that arise later?

At the beginning we didn't even know if we'd be able to get a truck. By the end of the school year we had a truck, we had some tools in it, and we had people emailing us from all over the country asking if we could come visit. We figured, Okay, why not? We've got some time now that we've graduated. Let's go on a road trip.

How did you finance the whole thing?

We started our funding for the project by running a Kickstarter campaign. We raised about $31,000 from that, which allowed us to start the ball rolling on funding but also gave us more legitimacy. We also got some press from it. Using that, we were able to contact some companies and got them to offer some money. Also we've had different schools, PTAs and parents help us fund the project. We raised more than $125,000 total between Kickstarter, corporate gifts and individual contributions.

Tell me about some of the workshops SparkTruck led.

One that we ran quite a bit was called Creature-Mash Vibrobots. We'd start off with the kids brainstorming a list of animals from land and another from water. Then they'd mash them together to create hybrid creatures such as giraffish or jellypig and sketch those creatures. Once they sketched the creatures, we'd start handing out supplies. The robot's base was a watch battery and a pager motor, which gives it the vibrating motion that allows it to scoot around. We also dumped out huge bags of craft supplies — pipe cleaners, googly eyes, popsicle sticks. We didn't give them directions on how to do it. They had to figure it out themselves, which is always kind of fun for them. We found that they're used to having people tell them what to do.

So what happened when they didn't have someone giving them explicit instructions?

I think it flipped a switch in their brains. Oh, you're not going to tell me what to do. I have to figure it out myself. It turns out 99.9 percent of the time they know exactly what they need to do and what they want to try. That's been a really cool part of the experience for us — having them understand that they can be empowered to make decisions about what they want to prototype. They can take something home that is truly their creation.

What educational holes were you trying to fill with SparkTruck?

Because of the rigid curricular standards we have nowadays, it's very difficult to have hands-on 'making' activities in classrooms. Because of budget cuts and space constraints, the shop class many of us had in school is being replaced by computer lab. We don't think that's a bad thing, but we think taking away the tangible aspect of being able to make things with your hands is a little troubling.

When we were talking with teachers and parents and principals about why these things were leaving the classroom, we heard that schools lacked the space and tools to do these things and lacked the expertise to run these types of workshops. We decided to put all three of those things on a truck — the space to work in, the tools you need to work with and us, who know how to work with the tools and run these workshops — and help plug workshops back into the classrooms.

What do you worry that kids miss from this lack of hands-on work in school?

When you do things digitally or are working on problem sets, I think there's this culture of a fear of failure. With hands-on learning, you can have really tangible moments of, 'Uh-oh my robot's not moving around but let me try to do something about it. Let me try something different.' By working through problems physically in the physical world, I think it's a more influential experience than doing a problem set and getting a red 'X' when you don't get it right.

What did you learn from this experience?

We learned that the country's really big, and though the terrain is very different, students are similar in that when you engage them in something where they get to work with their hands and take something home with them, they are 100 percent engaged.

How can your experience improve schools?

If a bunch of college kids who don't really know what they're doing can pull something like this off, people with actual experience working with kids or running workshops can do so much more than what we were able to accomplish. I think we showed teachers and schools that you don't actually need a huge space or a super-fancy tool set to do this. If we can do it out of the back of a truck, odds are you can turn a closet into something even better.

So do you feel that SparkTruck was an overall success?
I think so. This whole thing was a big prototype for us as well. I think we have made at least 2,697 students happier and they all have something in their houses that they've made as part of our workshop. I think that's something.

What's next for the SparkTruck?

We want this project to continue. We have a waiting list of 250-something schools that we weren't able to visit this summer. Right now, we're trying to figure out how we can turn this into a student project that happens every summer. Our hope is that SparkTruck goes around the country again next summer and the one after that and so on. We would also love to see people in different areas around the country make their own SparkTrucks or start running more hands-on workshops in their own classrooms.

All photos courtesy of SparkTruck.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com