BENNINGTON -- Hands-on learners found themselves in a technological paradise on Tuesday at the Bennington Free Library, when Jenn Karson showed them the inner workings of electronic childrens' toys, and how they could "hack" them.
The program, "Toy Hacking," was put on by Vermont Makers and made possible through funding from the Vermont Community Foundation Innovations and Collaborations Grant. The grant will pay for 28 three-hour visits to 14 public libraries across Vermont. The second program to come to Bennington, "E-textiles," will take place on August 5 from 1 to 4 p.m.
Karson, one of the founding members of Vermont Makers, provided electronic toys for the 17 students in attendance, who were between grades 5 to 8, to disassemble. Before any of that, however, Karson had the students examine their toys, draw them on graph paper, and describe what they did to the group. The children were encouraged to note things such as the effects of certain buttons, how many sounds the toy produced, and if it had any motorized parts. The toys included talking stuffed animals, fake guitars, and a butterfly that's wings moved while it played a song, among many other things.
Finally, each student, once they were properly equipped with safety glasses, was given a screwdriver and given very simple instructions: take your toy apart, gently though, so that no wires became disconnected. Each student was encouraged to pay attention to how different parts were connected on the inside, such as how a button was connected to a circuit board, which in turn was connected to a speaker. Karson and the volunteers from the library helped the students when asked, but for the most part gave them the freedom to explore the inner workings of the toys on their own.
After they were finished disassembling the toys, Karson asked the children to explain their findings. After everyone had had a chance, Karson explained the next step of the process. "Some of our toys break, that's how it goes," she said, "but most of you have done a great job keeping them working. Now, this is the part where we really start to break our toys." She taught the students how, using jumper wires pressed to specific parts of the circuit board, they could divert the electrical current, causing lights to flash or the toy to make sounds, including sounds the toys didn't typically make. She even had small buttons the students could attach to the jumper wires, effectively making their own buttons that did things the toy wasn't capable of previously. In short, the toys were now hacked.
While many of the circuit boards died (the above method is an excellent way to fry the circuit boards and make them unusable, explained Karson, but that was simply part of the fun) before the students could truly explore all of the possibilities, but each of them remained enthralled in their discoveries for the duration of the three hour workshop. However, one of the students became concerned about Karson's moral fiber. "Wait, so you hack?" asked the student, before shouting accusationally, "You're a hacker!"
"That's what you're doing right now!" said Karson, laughing.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB