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The Electronster

The Electronster is a program that provides kids with recycled electronics to take apart, in order to harness and encourage creative problem solving and self-confidence.

Photo of Olivia Vagelos

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We have released a pdf, standalone Electronster Toolkit! The toolkit contains all the information you need to run the program in your classroom, after-school program or at home. 

In October we ran a "Train the Trainers" program with 25 YMCA facilitors and administrators.

Find out more about the training program and the future of the Electronster, and download the toolkit from our impacts page.


The Electronster is a program that provides kids with recycled electronics to take apart, in order to harness and encourage creative problem solving and self-confidence.


Late elementary and middle school kids who don’t consider themselves “builders” need permission to break the social rules and deconstruct complex, multi-part objects because:
1. Doing so and having this permission gives them the confidence that if they have the right “tool” they can master other complex ideas and objects
2. Creativity emerges in deconstruction

By eliminating the pressure of the infinite possibilities of building, and instead leveraging a defined goal of “destruction,” kids naturally problem solve creatively, gain intense curiosity about the world around them, and subconsciously and consciously redefine themselves as having the toolset to tackle any problem.


The original idea for the Electronster was based off of SparkTruck, a mobile truck that teaches kids hands-on prototyping. Initially, the Electronster was going to be a mobile van with a program that included an introduction to design thinking and creative brainstorming, the destruction of recycled electronics and then a building phase in which the used components would be re-purposed to build an entirely new creation.

We tested and retested our prototypes (see below) in order to gain understanding of some key factors:

1. Which phases (of brainstorming, destruction and building) are critical to achieving our main goals of giving kids a “new toolset” and developing greater creative confidence?
2. How much knowledge of electronics must the children have for the exercise to be successful?
3. What is the best number of students, and age range, for this concept?
4. Can we engage with the critical issue of electronic waste at home and abroad, and and innovation using recycled materials going on in 3rd world countries?

Some of the biggest take-aways:

Building is not what is critical, it is the destruction that really unlocks something new.

There is a sense of mastery and accomplishment gained when the kids are able to take these complex machines apart, a mastery they otherwise see as unattainable unless you are an expert engineer.

The truck form factor limits the scalability of this project. Instead we are looking to integrate it into school classrooms, after school programs (like the YMCA we prototyped with) and with families at home (like one community organizer did).

Short term:
Working with the local YMCA branches and school districts to help more kids experience the Electronster.

Long term:
We would love to stretch the Electronster across cultures, engaging kids from the 1st world and 3rd world to think strategically about recycled materials and how to use them to solve critical problems in their own communities.

PROTOTYPE 1: (Ideas Phase)
20 seventh graders (boys and girls), 1 hour

Exercises in creative brainstorming (post-it notes, quantity over quality of ideas, “yes and…” building on ideas, prompts like “All you have is a stapler and you are stuck in outer space, what do you do?”) (10 min)
Deconstruction (25 min)
Creation/building (10 min)
Reflection (write one thing you learned on a post-it and leave it on the wall) (2 min)

-We found a plethora of usable recycled electronics at local recycling centers
-Kids were attracted by “Who wants to destroy electronics?” There is something inherently appealing about this concept.
-No hammers! Screwdrivers encourage more creative problem solving and less blunt-force banging
-They self formed small teams around the bigger electronics, strategizing when a tool or approach didn’t work
-The kids were eager to show each other what they found
-Boys and girls tended to operate differently - the girls were more likely to approach the dismantling methodically and flexibly - the boys did much more smashing
-Try and tailor the initial brainstorming more closely to the overall goals of discovery and building
-Give more time, guidance or help to the build phase. While fun, there wasn’t enough time to make elaborate, interactive, or complex creations.

PROTOTYPE 2: (Ideas Phase)
One 9 year old boy, 1.5 hours

Brainstorming (building focused) (15 min)
Destruction (20 minutes)
Building (20 minutes)
Discussion/reflection (15 min)

- *Destruction* is a critical element. It is this that really gave kids the licence and confidence to break rules and try new things - and had a crucial impact on building.
- Making an electronically operational item is not as important in the end as the process of building. But it is important. How do we get easy functionality early in the building process to build confidence and drive the creative aspects of building farther
-When brainstorming, storytelling and idea building (not just isolated ideas) were the most compelling and inspiring for Evan.
-Youth (of all ages) are willing to learn from older kids through this process and act as mentors to younger students
-The Electronster would work with children younger than the high-school age range
-The 9 year old was most attracted to the idea of professionals (Nascar drivers etc) coming in and teaching, but still had a great time with us as teachers
-The items that Evan wanted to build were all items that had a creative capacity themselves. While the building was fun, because we didn’t have the tools, capacity, time, or knowledge to make something that really worked mechanically or electronically, the building seemed anti-climactic
-Fun and doable with a single child, but team dynamics of a larger group seem critical to making the Electronster the most successful

COMMUNITY PROTOYPE: (Refinement Phase)
Community Organizer Hao Dinh

Hao did a lightweight prototype of the Electronster with his nephew! Check out his experience:

Inspired by Hao to help others prototype the Electronster, we created a guide to running the Electronster yourself!

PROTOTYPE 3: (Refinement Phase)
Three thirteen year old girls, 1.5 hours  


Brainstorming (How do we provide clean water in the 3rd world) (10 min)
Destruction (45 min)
Building (30 min) - Using destruction + other materials, build something related to the initial clean water challenge
Reflection (7 min)

-Most exciting to see these girls who are normally “builders,” or mechanically minded, elbow deep in the interstices of a microwave
-Group of 3 was a great size for a non-classroom project. Allowed for group problem solving and high energy
-Building with a distinct goal (water purification) added productive direction to the build. Still, the build portion feels unfinished, as there is infinite possibility and limited time/resources/technical knowledge
Getting in the elevator on our way out… one girl looks up at the ceiling panels and says “If only I had a screwdriver.”

PROTOTYPE 4: (Refinement Phase)
25 kids (boys and girls) at the YMCA afterschool program at Cabrillo Middle School, 1 hour


Group brainstorming, stoking exercise and framing the activity: (groups of 12) (10 min)
Destruction (40 min)
*No build phase*
Clean up and debrief: Each had to answer a set of 4 questions on a post it note (see below).

Standing in a circle, each kid would state “I am creative” after which we bestowed upon them their own screwdriver.

Debrief Questions
1) "What do you want to take apart at home?"
2) "What did this class inspire you to do?"
3) "What will you do tomorrow to make this a reality?"
4) "What did you learn about yourself?"

Selected Answers (Question number) "Quote"
(2) "To be a mechanical engineer"
(3) "To study harder so when I grow up I can be a mechanical engineer"
"Tomorrow I will study electronics."
"Tell my teacher about it"
"Tell people what I did"
"Make sure there is a tool for everyone."
"Get a tool box"
(4) "I did not know I could do this!"
"I learned that I may become a good technician
"That I am awesome"
“I learned that I like to unscrew stuff"
"That I am able to do anything I want to achieve"
"I learned that I can take almost anything apart."
"I'm cool"
"I will try a new thing. That I can do it."

-Small groups are best for running brainstorms. Having 12 kids in the brainstorm session made it difficult to address everyone and really push kids to think creatively.
-Three minutes is not enough time for people unfamiliar with brainstorming to generate ideas.
-Restrict/encourage groups of no more than three people per item
-The overall class can be scaled, but in chunks. A good ratio is two leaders for every twelve kids
-It is critical each student has the tools they need to prevent supply shortages.
-**Electronics only matter as far as their facade. Electronics represent the forbidden, and create a space allowing kids to be more creative.
-All the kids were on a high when leaving the experience. We need to push to makesure that they still have that high in three months time.
-The kids were very excited to walk away with their own tool. Screwdrivers may not have been the best choice (dangerous?) Consider safety goggles.
*** Awesome inspiration from Vandy, an OpenIDEO community member:

Because when tasked with destroying you can literally do it however you want. So even if you are low in confidence and are frightened of standing out both from failure or achievement, by taking something apart you can do no wrong. And just like building you can destroy as a group, and as we all know when you achieve something alone its great but when you achieve something as a collective it is absolute euphoria.

It is also very creative. Like you mentioned above kids go about destruction very tactically, learning as they progress. Going from smashing to surgically removing parts and maybe even organising. ****


How might you envision your idea spreading across geographies or cultures so that it inspires young people around the world to cultivate their creative confidence?

The kids at each stop of the Electronster could build unique pieces of a greater puzzle - which operate and stand alone but also can integrate across the country. For example - building robots or visualizers that interact with a specific piece of music. Then, at a designated time, every classroom would play the song, initiating and interacting with their devices. They may be thousands of miles away, but every project would interacting live with the same catalyst in the exact same moment. The kids aboard the Electronster could also use the recycled electronics to work on solutions for problems in the extreme affordability (developing world) sector - building with the same up-cycled re-used materials that would actually be available to such populations. Giving kids a greater goal, with the ability to have real, large scale impact, would provide motivation for learning in a way that traditional classroom settings may not.

What skills, input or guidance would you like to receive from the OpenIDEO community to help you build out or refine your idea further?

One of the most importance aspects of the Electronster is how the facilitator leads the building sessions, and what those would actually look like. Input on how the session should be run, what the ratio of teaching to just doing would be, and what skillsets need to be taught for the kids to be successful - needs to be built out and defined more explicitly. Prototyping: For prototyping we would need community support to help assemble electronic materials and raise awareness. We also need to gain access to differing ages of kids in diverse classroom settings - figuring out what teaching methods work best where and with which children. For the final Electronster to become a reality we also need a truck outfitted with materials and tools. We need to decide what is critical, what is inspiring, and what the space should feel like inside and outside. Lastly - we need to engage with schools across the country to create a community of projects!


Join the conversation:

Photo of Angela Brown

I would love to have Electronster come to my middle school. Who do I contact to make it happen?

Photo of Olivia Vagelos

Hi Angela -

We designed this standalone toolkit so that teachers or facilitators would have all the information they need to run the program themselves. You can download the toolkit here:

Let me know if you have any questions!

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