By Jean Lotus
Forest Park metal artist and homeschooling mom, Elaine Luther, is no stranger to power tools. After all, she's got a 20-ton drill press and a blowtorch on her porch. But she's really excited about microprocessors.
"Basically an Arduino is this small circuit board doo-hickey that includes a computer chip and some places where you can connect things to it," she writes on a blog for parents of gifted children.
Even though Luther admits she doesn't have the technical vocabulary to explain computer programming and microprocessors, what she does have is organizing experience.
Luther has developed two brand new Hacker Scout programs for local and regional kids based on the www.ADAfruit.com Hacker Scout program (not affiliated with Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts).
She's held two regional Hacker Scout Near West programs at the Dole Library in Oak Park for aspiring scientists, grades 7-15. Saturday she organized a teen/tween program at GreenLine Wheels in Oak Park. Co-organizer Jay Kinzie is an electrical engineer who coaches First Lego League and teaches electronics to students from college age all the way down to second grade.
"It really seems like this is a way into science for kids. Even though parents can't help in a lot of cases, it's a great background for any kid who might be interested in a career in science," Luther said.
The Hacker scouts, called "Sparks" earn badges in electronic understanding, such as Ohm's Law or oscilloscope badges, as well as practical skills such as welding or soldering.
"I said, 'Oh, there are geek badges! Perfect.'"
Luther did the research as a way to find a group of like-minded kids for her teen daughter and first-grade son. The scouts have T-shirts and attach their badges to nylon fishing vests.
"These vests even have lots of pockets where you can carry tools," Luther enthused.
The Hacker scouts have some help from Workshop 88, a "hacker space" in suburban Glen Ellyn.
As part of the oscilloscope badge, Jay Kinzie and Hacker Scout dad Jay Harris (an electrical engineer and computer programmer) spoke to scouts about sound waves. Harris brought an oscilloscope to the library.
"It was one of the portable models from his electronics business. It was an 'old' one, but in 1995 it cost about $60,000," Luther said.
"Sparks" created shoe-box guitars with rubber bands to create different-pitched sound waves and played them into a microphone hooked to the oscilloscope.
"One girl gave a high-pitched scream into the microphone," Luther recalled.
At the first meeting, the children built catapults of their own design with popsicles sticks, cardboard and duct tape after seeing a few samples built in different styles. Scouts learned about kinetic (stored) energy and how to put more energy into their catapult. They shot their catapults at a target.
"The emphasis was on learning, not competition," Luther said. "Hacker scouts are about the process, not the product."
Which brings us to Arduinos.
The Hacker Scout session will culminate in an electrical project programming a simple microprocessor.
"What makes the Arduino so hard to explain is that it can do so many things, and it disappears into whatever project someone's built," Luther said. By hooking the Arduino to a computer, you can program the computer to tell the Arduino what to do. There are even web videos of Arduino processors that program flame-throwing pumpkins.
At Workshop 88 in Glen Ellyn, some teens in the group took an electronics class where they did the "classic first Arduino project," programming it to make an LED light flash.
But for these teens, Luther said, an Arduino is too simple.
"What we're going to have for the older kids is a more complicated microprocessor called Raspberry Pi that can do more things," Luther said.
Luther said she's also trying to make the idea more appealing to girls, who might get turned off by the stereotypical hacker basement mad-scientist aura.
"We're trying to make more of an effort to bring this stuff to girls."
The teen/tween group is already filling up with girls from Oak Park, Forest Park and Riverside and as far away as Indiana and Joliet, said Luther, who hopes to write grants to get equipment and supplies.
"To some people, the word 'hacker' has negative connotations," she noted, "but among geeky people, 'hacking' means improving things, thinking of a clever solution."