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David Zax

A View from David Zax

A Sesame Street for Makers?

Adafruit’s educational series is a brilliant, necessary corrective to our “magic box” tech culture.

  • April 5, 2013

This week, Adafruit Industries launches an educational series aimed at kids, report Hackaday and others. And it’s about time.

Discussions of modern technology often evokes the word “magic.” Some of the most popular devices, like the MacBook Air, are built in such a way to seriously dissuade anyone who would go inside and tinker with the works. For the vast consumer market, it makes sense for technology to present itself as a “magic box.” Most people don’t care about how their laptop works; they just want it to work. And that’s fair.

But we must think of the children.

I’ve interviewed a lot of engineers over the years, and it’s amazing how many of them can trace their fascination with technology to a youthful moment where they played with or took apart a piece of kit.  You can only become fascinated with the structure of something if you can see the structure of it. You need that gear, that spring, that rivet to pop out at you and send you down the rabbit hole. This is how passions are born.

This was the idea behind Raspberry Pi. Far from a slick Apple device, the thing wears its technology on its sleeve. It reminds me of those old cartoons about “Inside Out Boy,” whose skeleton and organs were on the surface of his body. As Raspberry Pi’s Eben Upton once told me, the device was all about bringing the mystery of the command line to the fore (it was that old blinking cursor that lured many a software engineer into programming). But Raspberry Pi is just a drop in the bucket, and targets older kids. Here’s where Adafruit comes in.

Adafruit’s first episode is entitled, adorably, “A is for Ampere,” and features a blue puppet called ADABOT. Take a look.

Some people say the episode is too talky. But even if Adafruit’s offering isn’t the Sesame Street for makers, it’s clear that we need one. The United States lags in STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math) education; President Obama has made strengthening it a priority. If people are passionate about the future technological competence of our nation, they could do worse than to take a page from Adafruit and launch a program like this into the mainstream.

Mitt Romney said that while he “loved Big Bird,” the puppet would get the axe under his putative presidency. We need to go the other way. Perhaps ADABOT needs to be a robot-in-residence, in a trashcan next to Oscar the Grouch.

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