Kickstarting Education


Written by Russell Warner.

With public education funding coming under increasing scrutiny, it can be difficult for teachers to insure that they are addressing basic educational needs, let alone find the capacity or space in their budgets to do something creative or original. So, like many artists that have chosen to trod the new territory of being independent, some teachers and other creative types have begun to turn to new sources of funding; in particular, crowd-sourced funding sites like Kickstarter.

Founded in 2009, Kickstarter is one of several new sites that are allowing individuals to reach out to potential financial backers. Of course, artists having patrons is nothing new, but the ability to gather massive numbers of minor patrons from across the globe to fund a specific project is very 21st century. Creators post descriptions of their projects to Kickstarter along with their funding goals and specially designed gifts for various levels of funding. If the project obtains its funding goal, the money is turned over to the creator to execute on the project. If the goal isn’t reached, then the money is returned to the investors. You might think that crowd-funded endeavors of this kind, as new as they are, couldn’t raise more than a few thousand dollars, but Kickstarter’s top projects are starting to breach the one million dollar mark. However, most educational projects needn’t shoot for movie-level financing. In fact, given the way Kickstarter works, some times the more humble the funding goal, the better chance a project has of getting its funding. In a new and brugeoning market for funding independent projects, it would seem that there’s plenty of room and enthusiasm for educational projects.

Success Stories

Projects with educational goals that have already been successfully funded are myriad and represent a broad swath of approaches in media, technique and aim. In the gearhead category are Olopede, Puzzlebox’s Orbit, and IO Rodeo’s Colorimeter kit. You can think of Olopede as a distributed 200-in-1 kit (for those of us that remember those old educational electronics boxes). The Olopede project makes 4 hardware kits that can teach kids how to work with hardware to engineer their own devices. Puzzlebox’s Orbit is more of a finished product that can teach the benefits of mindfulness (primarily through attentive and meditative states) by using an EEG to monitor your brain waves and give flight to a remote control drone. Their project supplies not only the materials (EEG headset, USB-enabled drone base, and helicopter drone) but also comes with ample documentation and videos to teach how it all works. The best part of the Orbit is that its software, protocols and hardware schematics will all be published with open source licensing, making the Orbit a great hacking platform. Finally, IO Rodeo’s Colorimeter kit (similar to the Olopede kits mentioned above) comes unassembled with instructions, in order to provide an additional pedagogical layer, illustrating just how a colorimeter works its science. Once complete, the colorimeter can be used for many scientific experiments such as measuring turbidity, pH, water hardness, and phosphate levels in water.

Sparklab takes a decidedly different approach than the hardware kits above; they bring the tools to students. Sparklab, in the words of its creators, will be “A big red truck filled with cutting-edge maker tools that goes from school to school, bringing the joy of building back to kids.” It’s like a bookmobile but for hackers instead of readers. Not to be outdone in the transportation realm, Space Balloon, is a project that will take some science experiments in to space! Mike Saltzgueber, an entrepreneurial physics teacher from Doylestown, PA, put together funding on Kickstarter to allow him and his students to launch a balloon into the upper atmosphere, replete with video camera, GPS, and the names of donors to the project.

Ready, Set, Kickstart

The projects mentioned so far have already met their funding goals and are underway, so what are some of the projects that Eduhacker readers can get behind? Well, there’s plenty of them, from projects for the very young, to great educational tools for teaching about pollution, computer science and history.

Starting with education for toddlers, the Children’s Wallet Cards project aims to create a series of non-toxic plastic cards for children to use while learning about numbers, colors and shapes, and simple grammar. But these cards won’t just be for standalone play; they’ll be accompanied by an interactive iOS app that can scan cards and introduce even more interaction.

Head in the Clouds aims to teach the public at large about pollution and the environment through an installation on Governor’s Island in New York City. Pollution from plastic bottles has become a major concern these days, and the Head in the Clouds project wants to bring that concern to light. From their page, Head in the Clouds is “53,780 plastic bottles—the amount, thrown away in 1 hour in NYC, turned into a Cloud-shaped pavilion on Governor’s Island.” They’ve already achieved their primary goal of $9,000 but are working to parlay that success into even more funding with a new updated goal of $16,000, allowing them to provide even more public services like implementing bottle collection services around the proposed pavilion.

Does anyone remember Chipwits? I spent hours with this game on the old Mac SE, trying to get this virtual robot on roller skates to make its way through a maze of energy sources and obstacles. LogicBots is a project that aims to produce a similar game, giving players the chance to build and program virtual robots that are scored on their ability to navigate an environment. It’s three-dimensional game environment is a nice upgrade to the old Chipwits 2D game. With a modest goal of 5000 pounds, the project is right at the halfway mark of its funding goals and could use some help.

Finally, how about a series of teacher-produced videos that can help make the subject of history a little more exciting? History by Hamrick is a video project initiated by history teacher Heath Hamrick of Arlington, Texas that will produce free videos of re-enactments for use by history teachers everywhere. Hamrick’s goal is to inject History—a subject lots of students can find a little droll—with a dose of excitement. Hamrick’s already proven he’s got the chops to make exciting videos; you can see the evidence for yourself on his Vimeo page—the School of Imagication. What he needs now is some funding help to get the word out about these great educational videos.

Education? Sure! Why not?

One of the benefits of seeking online public funding is that projects don’t have to undergo a lot of scrutiny regarding their educational validity. Kickstarter is a highly democratic affair and if backers think an educational project is worthy of their dollars, they’ll back it. Ask yourself what school board would approve building a starship simulator in the name of education? Likely not many. Regardless, the Space Education Center of Logan, Utah thinks building a starship simulator is ideal for teaching about space, engineering and team work. If you’re a fan of the idea, this is definitely one project that could use your help to reach its funding goals.

D.I.Y. Education

Having already helped to raise more than $535 million for projects of all kinds, Kickstarter has established itself as a solid market for obtaining crowd-sourced funds, and they represent a potentially great resource for education. If you’re en educator, check back in your notes and ask yourself what project you might have undertaken if you only had the funding. If there’s an idea there, chances are good (about 50% in fact) that you could get that funding from savvy folks online. Find out more about starting a Kickstarter project on the start page.

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