That LED display wasn’t some off-the-shelf bit of kit you could buy at a hobby shop. Wired directly to a sophisticated computer known as a Raspberry Pi – a $35 credit card-sized gadget similar to the guts of a smartphone – the student had learnt how to manipulate signals coming out of the Raspberry Pi, in order to drive the LED display. He’d learnt how to program the display. He’d learned how to write a sophisticated control program for the Raspberry Pi, so the right messages would display at the right times of day.
I was gobsmacked. I’ve seen uni graduates in computer science display less depth in ICT skills than this year 6 student.
Suspicious a parent or a teacher had fabricated the device, we asked a series of technical questions about its construction and operation – and this 11-year-old answered them flawlessly, detailing each of the steps in his creative process. He wasn’t faking it. He really knew his stuff.
“Where did you learn all this?” I asked finally.
“Oh,” he replied, “I watched some videos on Adafruit.”
Established in 2005 as a website to educate adults in the wonders of modern electronics – the “Maker Movement” – Adafruit provides extensive written and video tutorials on a broad selection of topics in electrical engineering and computer software. I’ve used it myself over the years, and found it very useful when mastering a new skill.
But I’d never considered what might happen when someone with a boundless capacity for learning (which pretty much describes your average 11-year-old) mind-melded with the wealth of material available through Adafruit. In a few months, this student went from knowing next to nothing to a fairly comprehensive foundation in electrical engineering and computer science, just by leaning into his desire to learn.
He won the big prize that morning. He’d earned it. And I came away wondering whether this isn’t the way we should be teaching every child – helping them find something that completely obsesses them, then turning them loose. We couldn’t do that even a decade ago, because none of us had access to the overwhelming resources of knowledge and experience that are now part of daily life.