SparkTruck Is A Force For STEM Education On Wheels

Budget cuts and bureaucracy have kept engineering equipment from our nation’s schools, so a scrappy Stanford team is taking a truck chock-full of fun tools to the students themselves. SparkTruck literally parks a engineering bench outside of schools, let’s students play with the latest in maker technology, and has managed to have a measurable impact on students’ path towards a career in science.

“The maker movement has the potential to deeply engage kids in creatively using the math, the science, the other skills that they’ve learned, to build real things and see the connection between what they’re doing in schools and the real world applications,” says Joanna Weiss, the Secretary of Education’s Chief of Staff, who watched SparkTruck launch their nation-wide road trip at the annual Aspen Ideas Festival*.

“We believe that if we can get kids to make things and take them home, they’ll start thinking of themselves as makers that can create real impact in the world,” writes co-founder Jason Chua. For many students, science is a textbook, a brick of words and brightly colored images, which only has use in preparing them for a multiple choice test. One survey of student attitudes towards STEM found that “it is almost universal that mathematics and science is seen as boring and not related to real life” [PDF].

The maker movement, a trend towards mass, amateur engineering, is like Legos on steroids, complete with 3d printers, circuit boards, and anything else a child would need to create their toys from scratch.

SparkTruck sounds nice, but does it work? Stanford Education PhD student and resident researcher Kathayoon Khalil finds that students exposed to the SparkTruck glory see a sizable increase in how they identify themselves as builders (39% vs. 56%), which some psychological evidence suggests is a reliable predictor of actual behavior change. Khalil estimates that around 1-2 out of 100 students will pursue a STEM major in college as a result of SparkTruck. It may not sound like much, but educational interventions are usually (disappointingly) tiny.

One longitudinal study found that experience with high school scientific research bumped the actual decision to choose a career in science about 13%. SparkTruck is only an afternoon with some fun tools. So, as far as workable solutions go, it’s a relatively solid (and inexpensive) solution.

Check out SparkTruck’s road trip guide here.

*Disclosure: I consult for the Aspen Institute on a separate government innovation-related conference.