the electronster toolkit



In the fall of 2014 I led a small team of graduate and undergraduate students in addressing an OpenIDEO challenge. OpenIDEO, a collaborative online innovation platform powered by IDEO, posed the following question to their global community: How might we inspire young people to cultivate their creative confidence?

Through the process of deep ethnography and prototyping with a breadth of kids and parents, and driven by insights from graduate students that have married the fields of music and mathematics, we developed a program targeted at middle school students. 

The Electronster, a curriculum that leads students through the destruction of electronics, was selected by the OpenIDEO community and panel of judges as a winning idea. 

I led the development of The Electronster into a standalone toolkit for educators and parents and held a train-the-trainers session to facilitate the handoff of The Electronster to the Silicon Valley YMCA After-school Program.


observation and ethnography


CCRMA stands for Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Engineering.

We wanted to understand those who had married Music and Electrical Engineering - fields people considered opposite ends of the creative spectrum.

“As a kid I took apart our vacuum, all the lamps, my dad’s old phone...” We heard four different stories like this. 

What was it about those experiences of dismantling devices that was so “sticky?”

the openideo platform + observation

In the discourse on the OpenIDEO community forum, and through conversations with kids and parents, we identified the following trends:

“Creative = Artistic”. This becomes your identity early on. Creativity as an inherent skill you do or don’t have. 

“I’m not an engineer”. Few kids have the confidence to label themselves as builders. Especially not girls.

“Don’t Touch”. The devices that kids interact with most are a black box. What is actually inside a computer?


We ran a series of workshops combining different aspects of creative brainstorming, the dismantling of recycled electronics, and the building of new creations from the used parts.


Kids literally sprinted in when we told them they were going to “destroy electronics.” We saw them fail over and over to get past tricky enclosures, yet keep trying with multiple tools and approaches.


We kept pushing to make the build portion work, with different prompts, materials, and goals. But it wouldn't gel. Yet we were coming from the, crusader for the “maker” movement...



But our underlying assumption, that to create a builder mindset you needed to build, was wrong. 


crafting a point of view

There are infinite ways to take something apart. For students just beginning to develop their creative problem solving skills, it can be easier to be creative working towards a defined goal, like in a deconstructive process, than an undefined goal, like in a creation process. Leveraging a bounded goal of “destruction” in which there is absolutely no wrong way to do something, students naturally problem solve creatively, gain intense curiosity about the world around them, and subconsciously and consciously redefine themselves as having the toolset to solve any problem.



Late elementary and middle school children who don’t consider themselves “builders” or creative...


...need permission to break the social rules and deconstruct complex, multi-part objects...


...because this gives them the confidence that if they have the right “tool” they can master other complex ideas and problems.

iterate and test


We experimented with varying sized groups, set-ups, warm-ups, prompts, types of materials, gender dynamics, ambiance...


We considered the opportunities for the program to have the most impact. Traveling van? Parent-run activity? Integrated school curriculum? Multiple sessions?

take it home

How do we extend the learnings from the experience, to really make them stick? How do we know that we have made an impact?

implementation + impact

11.10. 14 Electronster Toolkit.jpg

the toolkit

We created a stand-alone toolkit that gives instructions on how to run the Electronster in your classroom, after-school program or at home. The guide details logistical information on gathering materials and facilitating the destruction and debrief activities.  It encourages educators and parents to experiment further with the programming.



In October of 2014 we ran a Train-the-Trainers program with 20 Silicon Valley YMCA teachers, facilitators and administrators.  We led them through a full version of The Electronster program and a two hour debrief, with the goal having these representatives feel confident in taking the curriculum into their classrooms and after-school programs over the following year. 


project winner

The Electronster was selected as a winning project by the OpenIDEO team and community. The project has been viewed over 5000 times and we have heard from parents and educators experimenting with the toolkit around the globe.


We ran a workshop with three middle school girls. One dad warned us: “She’s a reader, not a builder.” Ten minutes into the session she has her entire head and most of her upper body inside of an old microwave. After the workshop, the girl and I stepped into the elevator together, and looking up at the elevator ceiling, under her breath, she whispers... “If only I had a screwdriver right now.”



On post-it notes, at the end of every session, we asked kids to answer the following questions: 

What did this class inspire you to do? 

What will you do tomorrow to make this a reality? 

What did you learn about yourself? 



These are some of the things students wrote...

“I want to study harder so when I grow up I can be an engineer.” 

“I learned that I am able to do anything I want to achieve.”

“Tomorrow I will try a new thing. I learned that I can do it.”