When Lauren, her husband, and their 8-year-old son moved from Texas to Tennessee, they struggled to get back into the rhythm of Cub Scouts. Eventually, Lauren says, “I sat down with my 8-year-old and looked at the activities [Cub Scouts] are supposed to be doing and asked him, are these things you’re really interested in? He blurted out that he wants to be a computer programmer when he gets older.” A few Google searches later, Lauren was determined to start a Hacker Scouts troop and expose her son to the skills he doesn’t get in school – skills to help him accomplish his end goal of becoming a computer programmer.
Maybe you’ve read previous coverage of the Hacker Scouts or maybe your kid just isn’t into the local Cub Scouts scene – either way, if you’re thinking about starting a Hacker Scouts troop in your town, here’s how to do it.
Consider becoming an official Hacker Scouts Guild. (Take a look at Guild core values, and lesson plans and badge tree.) The fees are nominal and the benefits are phenomenal, including an orientation to Hacker Scouts, weekly problem solving meetings, access to general liability insurance, and tireless support from Samantha Cook, founder and executive director of the Hacker Scouts (based in Oakland, California). “Samantha is accessible all the time,” says Lauren. “Sam spent an hour and a half coaching and walking me through how to do open lab and give a presentation to community.”
The Hacker Scout badge tree includes carefully planned lessons for each badge that will walk kids through from technical newbie to robotic engineer (or 3D artist, or master sewer, or…). “We have a robotics branch and the kids know that if they finish all the badges along that branch, they will be able to build a robot on their own. It’s not someday, it’s a guarantee,” says Samantha. “Other kids are working on what they’re interested in at the moment, and that’s cool too. We try not to have badges the be-all-end-all. [Badges are] supposed to be fun, relevant, and show them all the ways they can use their skills in their lives.
Samantha welcomes questions from potential Guild leaders. First on her agenda: leadership and location. “When they contact me, that’s the first thing we talk about… because it’s really hard to do this all by yourself.”
Start by gauging local interest. How many local kids and their parents are interested in participating? What are their areas of interest and expertise? Does anyone have a workshop or garage that can be used? Are the parents willing to play an active role in helping the Guild (as opposed to just dropping their kids off and picking them up later)? “You’ve got to participate whether you can help teach soldering or bake a mean pie we can sell for five bucks a slice,” says Lauren.
Maybe you’re surrounded by techies eager to help teach programming and robotics (or are one yourself). If not, where you can find some who can act as mentors to your Guild? “Often I’m trying to connect [new Guilds] with local workshops or hacker spaces,” explains Samantha, “because there’s leadership already ready to help. There are occasions where that doesn’t work – the spaces are not appropriate or there’s no [hacker] spaces in the area. In those cases we just modify the program. There’s a lot you can do without heavy big equipment – like soldering irons, you can take those anywhere.”
Lauren found herself with a lot of interested families, but no easy access to a hacker space or hackers. “We have a couple hacker spaces [in Nashville] but they’re a good 40 minutes away and that would be a long commute for nightly meetings.” Instead, she’s looking for a community space close by for Guild meetings. Among the interested parents, very few could offer technical expertise, so Lauren and her husband plan to buy a hacker activity kit and put it together over the summer so they can then teach the kids. “When we need bigger pieces of equipment [we hope] the hacker space will take pity on us and let us come in and use their equipment a couple times a month.”
Running a successful Guild will require creativity and some out of the box thinking. Can you build parts you need from LEGOs instead of using a laser cutter? Order ready-to-assemble parts from a manufacturer? Bring in someone to teach a particular skill? “It’s definitely a work in progress,” says Lauren of the Guild she started. “I think Guilds are going to succeed or fail based on accessibility [of] resources.” Lauren is looking to the 18 universities in her metro area for student mentors. She’s also getting creative with fundraising, looking into everything from bake sales to corporate grants from local company headquarters (such as Nissan in Nashville). “Oakland opened with no funding,” explains Samantha of the original Hacker Scouts Guild. “We charged $75 to register and [that] got the kids a badge, their tool belt, and the entire hacker link circuit, which takes about two to three months to complete. So that $75 covers three months and from then on we have a sliding scale of $10 to $20 a month [per kid].” Samantha encourages Guilds to find a way to offer scholarships. “We want [Hacker Scouts] to be accessible and reach as many kids as we can – all our staff our volunteers and that’s how we’re able to do it. But, in Oakland for example … we have a few kids on scholarship because even $10 a month is a stretch [for their family] and no way am I willing to turn those kids away.”
Above all, remember that Hacker Scouts is supposed to fun – for kids and their parents. “We try to keep this process as simple as possible,” says Samantha. “The last thing people need is more bureaucracy. My entire staff here is really accessible to the Guild leaders – they’re free to contact us.” She emphasizes that Guild shouldn’t be clones of each other, but should form their own identities. “In Oakland our guild is very focused on robotics because that’s what the kids are interested in, but [the Guild] in New Mexico is very focused on textiles. The kids in Oakland voted on which [badges] to do first and which will be next and it’s guided by what they’re interested in and what their end goals are.”
The Hacker Scouts will be launching a website that will include templates for open lab activities with links and notes, badge requirements and lesson plans, and – eventually – the Guild leader handbook.