SparkFun helps jumpstart electronics exploration

By: Kay Rios Thursday October 4, 2012 0 comments Tags: Boulder, Brian Huang, electronics, LilyPad Arduino, Lindsay Levkoff, MaKey MaKey, Nathan Seidle, SparkFun

By Kay Rios

Sparkfun Electronics logoBOULDER -- Electronics permeate everyday life. They're often taken for granted except by those who work with them regularly and know what makes them tick.

And while diving into an electronic device may seem like something best left to those who hold degrees in electrical engineering, Boulder-based company SparkFun takes a different view.

SparkFun, an on-line retail store that sells pieces and parts for electronic projects, offers the world of electronics to a wide variety of people. "The technology is creased in a way that spans age and ability," says Lindsay Levkoff, SparkFun's director of education. "We frequently have classes at our headquarters where a NASA engineer is sitting next to a seven-year-old."

The client base ranges from electrical engineers to crafters and designers, elementary teachers and college professors, she says. "Many of our customers know what they are doing and have their own schematics. But we're now seeing a bigger split with a good number who are entry level and purchasing kits to get started."

The website boasts that whether it's "a robot that can cook your breakfast or a GPS cat-tracking device," the products are designed to make electronics more accessible to the average person. SparkFun offers more than 450 original products, ranging from resistors and LEDs to humidity sensors and LCD screens -- all of which are created, manufactured, tested and packaged at the company's 50,000-square-foot Boulder facility.

With so many options, it might be hard to know where to start. That's where the kits work well, Levkoff says. "Kits are a good way to start because they have all the parts and you have something to show for all the time invested."

As an example, the MaKey MaKey is entry level and doesn't require soldering. With it, the user can "make" anything into a "key" by connecting a few alligator clips. Examples include playing Mario with a Play-Doh keyboard, or creating a piano with fruit.


SparkFun also offers classes and a number of online tutorials. "One of the biggest responsibilities for my department is preparing products and materials to foster interest in this field," says Levkoff.

To do that, an offshoot website was created: "It's split-off as a way to give an easier place for those who don't want to be inundated," Levkoff explains. "The role of that website is to offer comfortable space to those just getting interested in electronics and also for educators. We provide free materials to teachers who want to bring this technology into the classroom and don't know where to start or don't have the time to create new materials."

Brian Huang, who teaches physics and Intro to Robotics at Overland High School in Aurora, has used the SparkFun products. "Right now, we are using the SparkFun inventor kit," he said. "It has a microcontroller and a bunch of different parts that can be reconfigured to explore a variety of concepts in electrical engineering and electricity. The introductory project uses a number of basic circuits that can be built with LEDs and switches. This gives students an understanding of voltage and currents and what makes a circuit. Then, we can add on the programming."

Huang is impressed with SparkFun's offerings.

"What's amazing about these products is that it takes away the black magic effect you often get in kits made by other vendors where they give you a black box element you plug in and it does something rather than see the internal components," he said. "With SparkFun, students are wiring to physical chips and working in a manner that civil engineers or hobbyists do. All these products build the foundation for tools kids can then use."

Huang recently co-authored a grant with another teacher in his district to do a project to get girls into engineering and science. The result was the purchase of LilyPad Arduino kits that will be used in a two-day workshop for up to 20 girls to introduce them to sewing and electronics.

"It's basically bedazzling your clothing with electronics," he says. "They learn about circuits and how to program, and then we set them loose to create."

The workshop is called "Engineering IS for Girls." "Girls are strong in math and science and outnumber boys in honors class up until sophomore year," Huang notes. "Then, at some point, there's that stereotype threat and a stigma that girls aren't good at science and can't be engineers.  Whether someone has said it to them or not, we see a lower number of girls in the science classes. All it takes is a gentle nudge."

SparkFun is providing the tools to help that happen, Huang says.

SparkFun was founded in 2003 by Nathan Seidle, who was then an undergraduate student in electrical engineering. His vision was a website that showed multiple views of each product -- linked to a datasheet -- and contained tutorials on each product. The company has since grown to more than 130 employees.

As the company has grown, so has its offerings with a wide variety of classes and an expanded outreach plan, Levkoff says. "We are reaching out well beyond Colorado. For 2013, our goal is to do a national tour so we cover the U.S. coast to coast bringing this to communities to help them integrate this fun experience into classrooms and museums."

The company conducted an East Coast tour in April and is about to embark on a similar West Coast tour this month.

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Kay Rios

About the Author: Kay Rios

Kay Rios, Ph.D., is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, including Colorado State Magazine, 25North, Fort Collins Coloradoan, Business World, Fence Post, Triangle Review, Changing Woman, Style Magazine, Northern Colorado Business Report, ArtLinc and the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn.