I had a great time at the 2012 Merit Badge University for Boy Scouts, conducted at Texas A&M University by members of Alpha Phi Omega. I was able to teach four classes through the day in STEM related subjects: Electricity, Electronics and two Inventing merit badge classes. Together, more than 130 scouts, parents and educators attended these classes where I was able to discuss STEM employment related to these fields, while teaching using hands-on demonstrations and exercises.
Kids learn so much more effectively when tey can put their hands on things that are part of their lessons – batteries and bulbs, wires and switches, even microcontrollers (ATtiny85) and Arduinos. The electronics courses were magnificent, with a whole roomful of kids all bent over multimeters and breadboards, wiring up electromagnets and learning to solder printed circuit boards without damaging the tiny components involved.
The entire class loved using the microcontroller chips to build a simple LED control circuit, and laughed out lound when they recognized the SOS pattern I had previously programmed into several of the chips. This set off a search for the other messages in each chip, excercising many different sklls at once as the older scouts showed off the Morse code they learned from the 2010 Historic merit badge, Signaling.
The Inventing classes were by far the most popular, as I had brought samples from supporters of the STEMulate Learning workshops. Konarka‘s flexible Power Plastic solar panels joined Acoustiblok‘s aerogel insulation and CRG‘s Veritex shape-memory polymer materials gave the scouts many ideas for new innovations. Dynalloy‘s shape memory alloy wire was a hit in a sample robot hand kit controlled by muscle wire actuators, while the Lumitex fiber optic LED illuminator had every scout talking about wearable waterproof illumination for their gear.
One of the biggest hits by far, though, was the 3D Printing sample from Shapeways with the various types of materials including multi-colored and free-running parts (like the small rings visible in several of the examples). Parents, educators and scouts alike were enthralled by the idea of printing something from a computer design directly into solid objects.
We spent some time discussing the potential for 3D Printed houses and on-demand manufacturing without requiring storage and shipping for future products. Participants were animatedly discussing the possibility for astronauts to carry along 3D printers when exploring Mars, so that they could print out tools as they were needed rather than trying to take along one of everything when mass would be so critical.
It was an amazing time, and I will post up more once the videos of the event have been uploaded. Thanks to all of the supporters of the STEMulate Learning program – without your participation, the classes would have been pale by comparison! And thanks go to the great folks at Texas A&M University for their interest in young learners from around the country!