SparkTruck: A “Bookmobile” That Brings Rapid Prototyping to School Kids

The truck contains two 3-D printers, a laser cutter, sewing machines, and a clay oven—and its meant to foster a new generation of makers.

Somewhere between grade school and junior high, we stop making things. Popsicle sticks, Elmers glue and construction paper are abandoned, and learning becomes about ingesting as much information as possible and regurgitating it on the right lines of a test. We need to learn our long division, of course, but can we continue with creativity along the way?


SparkTruck is like a bookmobile for makers. Funded by Kickstarters and staffed by students from Stanford, it’s covering 13,000 miles over the next six weeks to bring creative crafting to kids around the US. And whereas most schools are fighting for funding for core materials like paper and pencils, SparkTruck is loaded to the brim with rapid prototyping equipment used by engineering and design houses.

“The ‘high-tech’ tools we have in the truck are a laser cutter, two 3-D printers, a vinyl cutter, sewing machines and a clay oven. We also have a wide assortment of ‘low tech’ tools such as hammers, scissors, hot glue guns, tape, and various craft supplies,” explains coordinator Jason Chua. “We use these tools in tandem with one another–the high-tech tools like the laser cutter and vinyl cutter get people excited and allow them to create more durable final products and low-tech tools allow for more freedom of expression and hands on tinkering.”

Rapid prototyping isn’t just a go-to of professionals; it’s the perfect complement to a child’s attention span. Theoretical designs can be fulfilled in near-instantaneous gratification. And if you think about it, the raw materials that go into 3-D printers and such devices are relatively inexpensive–they’re designed to be run for a very low cost–making them, again, a great fit for the tight budgets of the education system.

As for SparkTruck, they’re mostly focusing on that developmental pocket before high school, to excite kids before they stifle creativity underneath some of the most awkward, self-conscious years of their lives.

“Our favorite age range to work with is 7-13 years old, because this is the range when opportunities to create and explore in school diminish, and pressure to conform and fit into standardized systems and tests increases,” writes Chua. “We want to make sure that fun, open-ended opportunities are made available to kids as they move through school and life because this is what helps kids get over their fear of failure and grow confidence in their abilities to be creative and work through tough problems.”

In the wake of ACTs and AP classes, shop class developed a blue collar stigma. What a shame. As if the researchers at our top colleges are hiring Jiffy Lube part-timers to code their firmware, solder junctions, negotiate radio signals and tweak electromagnets.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.