Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Cover PhotoOn Geekdom’s projector screen, a buffalo and crab were prepared to move around a purple race track. SparkFun’s Jeff Branson gave the students the final programming directions for moving their animated characters.
“We have to be able to rotate to drive the buffalo, or in your case the flying pancake or whatever you’ve created,” Branson said. “I have to use my slider to drive my buffalo.”
This wasn’t Branson’s first digital rodeo. The SparkFun National Tour has already visited 70 cities on the way to San Antonio while teaching kids about programming, soldering, and building circuits. The SparkFun tour is an educational outreach mission of the larger SparkFun Electronics Company — based in Boulder, Colo. — which makes components for a wide range of prototype electronic devices as well as components for students, teachers, and inventors.
Photo 1 (1)The San Antonio stop, which taught programming, was organized and funded by San Antonio nonprofit SASTEMIC – an educational organization working to organize and grow the local Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, known as STEM, community. SASTEMIC signed up for the event a year ago when they contributed $1,500 to the SparkFun Kickstarter campaign. Geekdom hosted the event.
Thirty-five students, ages 8-14, attended the event. While using Scratch, a drag-and-drop programming software, the students learned to program if-then statements and manipulate variables so that their animated character, called a sprite, could maneuver around a race track while avoiding another sprite. By the end of the day the students would have a simple game, which even included programming sprite collisions and creating a scoring system.
“When the crab runs into the buffalo, what do we want to happen?,” SparkFun Curriculum Curator Derek Runberg asked. “How about we lose one coin? What do we do when we want to subtract coins?”
Photo 2To control their game, the students used a PicoBoard– a SparkFun-created multifunctional circuit board that has buttons, sliders, and sensors and can be programmed to work with Scratch. The kids had to program their software to work with their hardware. In this case, they used the slider to steer their sprite and a button as an accelerator. Once their character moved, they collected coins around their racetrack.
While the kids might not have noticed, the exercise required substantial problem solving as well as some intermediate math.
“It’s a very concrete way of teaching variables to kids at this age. In their standard math class, they just see a variable as a letter. In this they get to see that value change over time depending on what they are doing on the board,” Runberg said. “It makes a really good mental connection between something abstract and reality.”
Programming a racing buffalo or pancake might be more fun than work, but it’s the first part of a much bigger picture for SparkFun. The ultimate goal, according to Education Outreach Coordinator Jeff Branson, is to speed up the educational process for the next generation of programming talent.
Photo 3“We feel like it’s the key to the future of innovation in this country,” Branson said. “It takes about 15 years to produce a significantly advanced engineer or computer programmer who is able to work at the levels of technology that are common in our society. If we start kids really young in these drag-and drop programming environments, by the time they get to the [Coding] languages, the vocabulary and the techniques are something they’ve already got. So it makes it that much easier, they learn that much faster, and we can push them into advanced territory that much sooner. ”
Parents such as Jay Tkachuk agree. While Tkachuk is Vice President of Online Services for Security Service Federal Credit Union, he has never been code-savvy and wants his kids to have that ability.
“To put it mildly, people who know how to code have special powers. I want our kids to not only be savvy how to use technology but to understand it on a fundamental level,” Tkachuk said. “We are trying to move away from the paradigm of just being users. I want them to be able to create or, if necessary, fix things.”
Both of Tkachuk’s 8-year-old kids, Kai and Michael, participated in the event.
“We were doing Scratch the cat, and we were making racetracks so they could race each other and see who would win,” Kai said. “I put the cat on the buffalo and I drew a Mario horse.”
The SparkFun National Tour will continue on to Houston Sunday and then will end in Victoria on Monday.
SASTEMIC plans to continue creating STEM programs, starting with a high school outreach program in January led by STEM Director Mark Burnett. The nonprofit organization purchased Geekdom’s Geekbus last summer, and will begin a high school pilot program next year using the resources of the SA Maker Space.
SASTEMIC founder and Chairman Scott Gray, who is also the President of Elevate Systems, says the programs are important to the San Antonio economy.
“The goal is to get the K through 12 kids excited about all of the STEM pathways so that they can progress and go to college and get degrees so we can hire them here in San Antonio,” Gray said.

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