Not Boy Scouts Or Girl Scouts, But “Hacker Scouts”

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The NPR program Weekend Edition Sunday featured a very interesting segment yesterday about “hacker scouting”— a group activity modeled on the Boy and Girl Scouts, but with a very different focus.

Uniforms, cookie sales, and camping aren’t for everyone, the program notes, 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. NPR correspondent Jon Kalish reports:

JON KALISH: 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.

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 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. He 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?
GRACE 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.

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.

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.” (Read more here.)

What a vibrant-sounding movement of young people who love to make things, and the grown-ups who are helping them.

I wrote in my Time.com column, here, about the importance of tinkering. I’m glad to know that tinkering is alive and well in a new generation.

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