DIY culture: Do you want your kids to create or consume?

It has become a common refrain on the web: The rise of the DIY culture, the hacker movement and an overall sense that knowing how to code and hack is an important skill Events like Maker Faire are growing and attracting more participants, while venues like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Etsy are offering makers of all types a viable venue for selling and advertising their skills. This cultural movement can rightly be seen a backlash against the passive consumerism of the last six decades, but it’s also about something larger — our place in an increasingly competitive, and “flat” world.

And as such, a large part of this movement focuses on kids. How do we teach our kids to code? How can we get them interested in hacking? In building? SparkFun, a Boulder, Colo.-based retailer of various DIY hardware kits, has a solution: a subsidized national tour that will supply hardware and tools for teaching kids how to build electronics and code to schools.

SparkFun wants to visit schools in all 50 states and will offer courses to both students and educators, as well as development kits. The first 50 spots are subsidized and so cost $1,500 for a class, while later spots will cost $2,500. Already 13 of those 50 slots have been claimed even before the program has been publicly announced outside of the SparkFun website, according to Lindsay Levkoff, the director of education at SparkFun.

Teaching middle schoolers Scratch programming.

Teaching middle schoolers Scratch programming.

Levkoff created the SparkFun department of education in 2011 to help bring the maker movement to schools that were interested in adding programs but had no idea how to go about it. After a West Coast and East Coast tour last year, the company decided to make it even bigger with a nationwide effort. As a side benefit, SparkFun is creating potential customers for its store.

“When I designed the department it was almost an altruistic branch and there was no guarantee that we would pay for ourselves,” Levkoff said. “We’re trying to be a nonprofit within SparkFun … but if people want to buy the kits and products then that’s a fantastic by-product.”

SparkFun’s plans are part of a larger effort to create hacking groups like Hacker Scouts for kids and even offer classes or hacker space for the younger set.

And while I’ve been pondering how to start one of those for my own daughter’s school, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the bigger issue here; namely why is this movement gaining ground and how important is it really? Is programming the literacy of the 21st century? Does being able to solder, sew or build a robot make someone more employable or creative than another?

The SparkFun tour is helped along by a drive to push Science Technology Engineering and Math education (STEM) and subsequent government and private grants to schools. As a parent I also am eager for my daughter to engage in building things and playing around with hardware in part because I loved building computers, radios and whatnot with my own dad.

But in some ways, beyond the mechanics of programming and the magic of electricity, I think these projects add a venue for concrete accomplishment that can be lacking in everyday schooling for many kids. And that sense of accomplishment, of completing a concrete task as opposed to learning algebra, might be the real value of these maker-based curricula. After all, there are a fair amount of people who get a lot more satisfaction from creating than from consuming.