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“Hacker Scouts” trains children in tech despite naming dispute with Boy Scouts of America

on October 1, 2013

Three 11-year-old girls huddle around a piece of paper, intently laying out plans for the new studio to which they’ll be relocating next month.  Diana Lim’s hair sways back and forth as she giggles with her twin sister Natalie.  Their best friend Amelia Costello points out where a new laser printer will go.

The sixth graders are learning soldering, programming and pyrotechnics as part of a group of 30 Oakland kids focused on developing science, technology, math and art skills through the Hacker Scouts.

Founded in Oakland in October 2012 by wife-and-husband team Samantha and Chris Cook, Hacker Scouts was developed as an outlet for children who want to learn hands-on skills not usually offered in traditional schools.  The Scouts currently meet at Ace Monster Toys in North Oakland.

“We were meeting a lot of kids who had big dreams.  They wanted to build robots and sculptures and autonomous go-karts,” Samantha Cook said. “But there wasn’t any way for them to actually gain the skills that they needed to do that on their own.”

To meet the growing needs of the young hackers for a dedicated space and materials, the founders have launched a fundraising effort.

A month-long Kickstarter campaign, begun on September 12, so far has raised $15,000 towards its $35,000 goal.  The funds would be used to move Hacker Scouts to a new location accessible to the wider Oakland community.

The campaign would also allow the Cooks to provide the children with the tools to reach their goals.  “They’re in control of their own education here. It’s very self-directed and they tell us what they want to do and it’s our job to support it and to get them there,” said Samantha Cook.

Hacker Scouts consists of three programs developed for children from 4 to 15 years old.  “Open Lab” runs twice a month and is open to the public. “Guild” is a weekly program designed for older youth who want to delve deeper into coding, soldering and robotics, (including making circuit boards called “hackerlings”).  “Sparks” is a program for 4-to-8-year-olds that utilizes simple materials to create age-appropriate science projects.

Although Hacker Scouts originated in Oakland, it has expanded to five Guilds throughout the Bay Area.  Within the past six months, it also has been adopted by 30 other institutions located throughout the nation.  Samantha Cook has released the projects taught in Hacker Scouts in an open-source database to allow the program to reach a global community.  Each of the Guilds maintains a licensing agreement with Hacker Scouts and follows the model developed in Oakland.

Samantha Cook said it’s important for children to have a community that allows them to express their interests and to hone their skills.  Recently, the five San Francisco Bay Area Guilds met with the Guild from Las Vegas, N.M., to share ideas over pizza.

The kids “instantly identified each other as allies,” Samantha said.  “They felt like: these are my people. I’m not weird for having these interests.”

Chase Henry-Thiem, 13 years old, joined Hacker Scouts in March so that he could learn something new that allowed him more tactile and manual work.

“The only thing that I get to do with my hands in normal school is with the keyboard,” Chase said.

Chase’s aunt, Tara Harwood visits Hacker Scouts each week along with her nephew and her 11-year-old daughter Zoe to help the kids with their projects.

Hacker Scouts teaches Zoe to think in a critical way, her mother said.  Her daughter even recommended hacking a rudimentary board game that she received at Christmas into an interactive game using the skills she acquired at her Guild.

“Her having that idea — not, ‘This game is boring. Let’s throw it in the trash,’ but ‘This game is boring. Let’s make it more interesting’ — is a take-away from Hacker Scouts that she’s really taken to heart,” said Harwood.

Although Hacker Scouts has mostly spread through word of mouth, the program recently received national recognition that caught the eye of Boy Scouts of America, which objected to its use of the word “scouts” in its name, and sent Hacker Scouts a cease and desist letter.

“While the BSA applauds any group whose aim is to use principles similar to the Scouting program, the use of Scouting trademarks, symbols, words and phrases are an essential part of Scouting that creates a sense of belonging,” said Deron Smith, the director of public relations at Boy Scouts of America, in a statement on copyright infringement.  “The BSA has a responsibility to our members to maintain these unique assets.  As any organization would do, from time to time, it’s necessary for the BSA to take steps to protect its intellectual property and brand.”

To avoid a lawsuit, Hacker Scouts has decided to change its ­­name by­ the end of the year.  Although a name is still being decided, the children are helping to brainstorm a new brand. Samantha Cook said this shows the resilience of the children.

“One of the kids said to me, ‘You know it doesn’t even matter what you call Hacker Scouts.  You could even call it ‘booger,’ and I would still come,’” she said.

The legal threat and impending name change are only minor obstacles in a program that’s all about encouraging potential, said Cook.  “We never say, ‘No.’ We say, ‘How?’”


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