Meet Samantha Cook of Hacker Scouts And Help The Cause!

banner2We geeks have to make sure that we impart our wisdom, experience, love of learning, and ability to recognize unwise technical choices to the younger generation. That’s not always easy between work, family, our own kids, and the decaying educational infrastructure. Meet the Hacker Scouts, an organization that gets young people involved in science, technology, and engagement in the community. It’s pretty much everything I wish I’d had when I was younger.

Best of all? They’re leveraging the latest technology to let you help out – using Kickstarter to get their own lab in Oakland California. Yes, kickstarting a science scout facility. So you know, I’m going to interview anyone involved.

Fortunately, Samantha Cook herself, the Executive Director, took the time to speak with me. So go, read – and then go support and get involved.

1) Samantha, first of all give us a quick overview of the Hacker Scouts and your goals.

Hacker Scouts is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to providing opportunities for kids to learn concepts in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) and build real, relevant skills. We do this through programs that focus on mentorship, a high level of individualized learning, and access to technology and tools. We also provide a growing database of open source activities, curriculum, and resources. Our goal is to prepare kids for the future,. We want to support kids to be independent life long learners who are creative, can adapt to new technology, and value sustainability.

2) What kind of support do you receive from the STEM communities in general – and Silicon Valley in particular?

I think that our unique approach and openness to collaboration has made it exciting for other partners to work with us. For example, we are working with Space Gambit, Mach 30, and NASA employees to build an entire branch of our badge tree dedicated to space exploration and technology. I am also working with a Disney Imagineer on a project to document lost arts and special effects. On a more local level, many of our mentors come from tech companies like Google. These are people who share our vision and volunteer their time to help us achieve our goals. Other support comes from collaborating on events and workshops, or donations.

3) So why Kickstarter for the Oakland Lab?

We need help. We don’t charge for any of our programs, which makes them accessible and affordable for all of our communities. We are all volunteers. We also publish open source. We have been partnered with a hackerspace for a year, but our access to it is limited. In order to meet the demand and run more programs in Oakland, we need a dedicated space. Kids deserve a space that is designed for them, a place that is both safe and functional as well as fun. On the national level, we need to have a space that serves as a model for all our mentors and leaders and is set up for the kind of experimentation, prototyping, and training we do. It makes a huge difference to teach educators how to bring hands on learning and making into their classroom when the environment reflects that purpose.

4) Are the scouts themselves involved in the Kickstarter as a learning experience?

Yes! We have a team that helped with the Kickstarter and there is a team helping to design the new space. They have been learning quite a bit about film making, budgets, and more! We also have a group already willing and wanting to help fulfill our Kickstarter rewards! The kids in our Oakland program are dedicated and united to making this happen. They really get how this space could change their world, and in turn help to change the world of other kids like them. Recently, we had an event that included a bunch of Guilds, some from the Bay Area and some from outside of California. The kids instantly connected with the idea that they are a part of a larger community and that other kids love the same things they do. Now, the Guilds are all starting to communicate with each other and send each other things they have made. That’s powerful, and it is supported in a big way by our Oakland program.

5) How has the Kickstarter gone so far and how has the response been.

I think we are off to a great start. We are 24% funded but we have a long way to go still. We need every bit of support we can get. Every reward we have offered was thoughtfully chosen. Personally, I am particularly excited about the Maker Dinner!

6) A lot of people in our audience are “Applied Geeks” who put their passions to work – how can they help the Hacker Scouts beyond Kickstarting?

I like that. I’m an Applied Geek myself! Beyond Kickstarter and donations, there are many ways to help. We can always use mentors for our programs, which would be working directly with the kids. We are also always needing experts in specific fields to help us expand our resources of activities and build Badges. Those are just a few examples, but I could name many more!

7) Right now the state of education and STEM is something many of us aren’t happy with – how can being involved in the Hacker Scouts help.

As an educator, this is in part why I founded Hacker Scouts. After years of working in museums and non-profits and doing outreach to every kind of school you can think of, I wanted to build something that filled the gap between how our system is designed and how children actually learn. I wanted to design a way to support individual passion as well as build the skill set and confidence this next generation is going to need for the future. Most of our programs are facilitated outside of the school system, but we are starting build a successful relationship that we can have with schools via after-school programming, recess clubs, and parent involvement. But the sad fact is that, using California as an example, many schools do not offer adequate science instruction until 5th grade, because that is when it shows up on the STAR test. We have plenty of evidence to suggest that if students are not engaged and excited about STEM/STEAM by high school, it is unlikely that they will become so. So, we are expecting kids to make STEM/STEAM a part of their interests and identity within a few years, years that are heavily influenced by peer interests. It is essential that we make those concepts and skills as interesting and fun and personal as early as possible! That’s what we are trying to do.

8) Have you considered promoting Hacker Scouts via other venues – video game and anime conventions, SF clubs, etc.?

I’m actually really interested in this idea. I have had a Star Wars and several different video game themed Open Labs. I am running a class next month on using Minecraft (specifically redstone) as a pre-coding class. I sponsor a Dr Who Fan Club within Guild 001 who are designing (and will be teaching) a Dr Who themed Open Lab. I actually have a teen Scout who is building his own Tesla Coil TARDIS! Often, learning the science, technology, and craft behind some of their favorite pop culture games, comics and movies is what gets them interested, and then they branch off on their own from there. Even I experience moments like that. This year, I realized my dream of making a Wookie Cushion (a Chewbacca pillow of fur that makes sound) and it gave me a reason to learn how to hack sound chips. I think it was really important to model and share that process with the kids. Using those interests can be the catalyst to the confidence and self-direction some kids need to expand their skill set. Plus, it’s really fun.

Thanks Samantha! And everyone, go donate! It’s one more step towards more STEAM awareness!

– Steve