by Bradley Osburn
The SparkTruck, a traveling hands-on laboratory envisioned to inspire creativity in children, rolled up to the Cade Museum of Creativity and Invention on Thursday morning, ready for Alachua County and surrounding area kids to get inventive.
SparkTruck is the result of an online Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign run by a group of Stanford students interested in education, technology and do-it-yourself making. The Kickstarter, which raised $31,275 to pay for the truck and some high-tech equipment like a laser cutter and 3D printers, ended in March of last year. SparkTruck is currently on its second nation-wide tour.
The SparkTruck team is made up of five university students — and one recent graduate — who have spent most of their summer driving across the country. The current group consists of Stanford students Brittany Hallawell and Stephen Shepard; Art Center College of Design in Pasadena student Benji Kuroda; University of California, Berkeley student Warren McQuinn; and University of California, Santa Cruz graduate Sarah Cohen. Graduate student Max Alexander coordinates the group from Stanford.
The SparkTruck itself is a large delivery/maintenance truck repurposed as a mobile science experiment. Inside, one can find clamps, saws, safety gear, a laser cutter which sliced out dozens of miniature models of the truck and a sign that says “THIS IS NOT A TACO TRUCK,” which was made for the team because they were constantly being mistaken for a taco stand or ice cream truck, according to Warren McQuinn. The ceiling is covered with a rainbow of Post-it notes bearing descriptions of kids’ experiments.
Inside the Cade Museum, almost two dozen kids went to work learning how circuits work and creating hybrid animals called Vibro-Bots out of a battery, a paging motor, popsicle sticks and decorations like googly eyes and pipe cleaners.
“We’re trying to get them to think creatively,” said SparkTruck student Sarah Cohen, “so we have them list land and sea animals and pick two of their favorites to start brainstorming how to combine them.”
One boy names Miles showed off his “shirrel,” a combination shark and squirrel with blue pipe-cleaner legs, a yellow fin and a motor that brought it to life on the table. He described it as an omnivore that can live on land or in the sea.
“I’m really passionate about education,” Cohen said. “I was looking around for opportunities and stumbled on the SparkTruck and thought it would be a great opportunity. I’m very excited to create future thinkers.”
SparkTruck will spend the next week traveling to six surrounding counties and 10 locations, including the High Springs Library and the Cedar Key Community Center. The full list can be found here.
“This isn’t so much an economic opportunity for us,” McQuinn said. “But for these kids, if they get inspired to follow a path like this and grow up to solve problems, then who knows?”
The event was attended by city officials, educators and the presidents of both Santa Fe College and the University of Florida: Jackson Sasser and Bernie Machen. The Plum Creek Foundation sponsored the event and SparkTruck visit with a $10,000 donation. The museum paid for another $4,000 to $5,000 worth of supplies for the experiments.
The Cade Museum has been in the news recently for its upcoming expansion into a 21,000-square-foot space in downtown’s Depot Park, with a planned future expansion of an extra 24,000 square feet. The museum foundation is on track to break ground in 2015. Downtown Gainesville is quickly becoming a hub for Florida invention, and the forthcoming museum will be right alongside it.
Museum CEO Phoebe Miles, the daughter of the late Gatorade inventor and museum namesake Dr. Robert Cade, said that as the museum grows in size and visibility it will act as a showcase for the innovation and invention in Gainesville and north central Florida. One of the museum’s missions is to foster entrepreneurship in underserved areas.
In the fall, one program will teach kids how to not only make sidewalk chalk, but also how to package and sell it. Gatorade took a whole team with lots of specialties to produce and sell, said Perry McGriff, a member of the Cade board of directors. A larger space for exploration and experimentation will only benefit the museum’s goals.
“Our ideal situation,” Miles said, “is to have a finished building with great exhibits and a robust slate of programs.”
“And our own truck,” she said.