STEMpede at Parker

Take two old scanners, two VCR’s, a stereo amplifier and tape deck. Place on a table with an ample supply of screwdrivers, wire cutters and other tools. Mix in a dozen middle school kids and observe the results!

As you might expect a little chaos appears. Chaos is good… Embrace the chaos! Use the result to have a little fun while learning.

Electronic Sacrifices
A few electronic sacrifices await the arrival of the students.
The event is STEMpede, a day filled with science, technology, engineering and math at the Parker School here in Waimea. With Keck Observatory essentially right next door, it makes sense that our engineers and astronomers can put on quite a day for the kids.We were joined by one of the engineers from Liquid Robotics and a couple local physicians and paramedics for a variety of activities and talks.

I was not going to simply talk, I have always believed learning is best done by hand. Some of the gear was from my own garage, some off the electronics disposal pallet at work. A lineup of old electronics greeted the kids, then I opened the tool-bag!

The kids were a little hesitant when I first turned them loose. A bit timid even. They asked again… “does it have to work later”… No!!! It took a few minutes for the implications of that answer to really sink in, there was a visible shift of attitude in the class. Soon parts were flying, screws littered the tabletops, and the sound of crunching plastic became common.

About twenty minutes on, once each device was basically apart, I called time-out and took the kids through a tour of the internals. We identified each assembly and many of the components. My goal was simple… Show the kids that technology is approachable, something that is really not that difficult. Open the black box to reveal what lies within.

I did take a minute to discuss electrical safety, showing them what parts were dangerous in the devices lying gutted upon the table. Pointing out where the high voltage entered and how to insure a device is safe to open and work on. I also required that everyone wear safety glasses, including myself. A few complained, I pointed out that the glasses I brought were so much cooler than the heavy goggles the school provided… “We’re good!”

Electronics Debris
The remains of a scanner after an hour with the students
There was an interesting moment. One of the appliances I brought to destroy was a stereo cassette deck. Before starting I asked the team what it was. Not one kid knew! A dozen assembled middle school students and not one knew what a cassette tape was. I felt really old.

I had two groups scheduled, with a fresh set of electronic victims for each group. Both sessions ran almost exactly the same, an indication the plan was a good one. I know from experience that it can be difficult to get their attention and get the students involved in a classroom exercise. I had no such problems this day, everyone was engaged with learning.

It was a lot of fun, the kids had a blast, and maybe even learned something in the process. The table tops were literally covered with parts and pieces. At the end of each session we had a little more time before clean-up, they continued to tear into the gear. I walked about talking about the more interesting bits they removed. Kids were bringing stuff to me and asking what it was. The scanners were great for this, stepper motors, a CCFL lamp, and the linear CCD.

One girl was intent on getting her part disassembled, the sheet feeder from one of the scanners. While the rest of her team worked on the body, she sat and carefully took the feeder apart. I mentioned I would like the motor, explaining what a stepper motor is. Ten minutes later she presented it to me, neatly removed in perfect shape. She was still working at the assembly when class ended, dissapointed she was not finished. “No problem, take it with you.” Many students had grabbed a souvenir part or two, VCR heads were popular. As she left the roller assembly was clutched to her chest, a fair bit of work remaining, a puzzle that will be solved.

How much have I learned from disassembling various devices during a lifetime in electronics? Over the decades I have torn apart so many things. Sometimes to repair them, often to scrap them, sometimes just to see how they were put together. The experience has been invaluable to me, an experience I wanted to pass on to these kids… Do not be afraid to take it apart, see what is in there and to learn.

In the end the result was a big pile of parts tossed in the bin, and a few kids thinking a little differently about technology… I hope.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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