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Northwestern Sophomore Brings Design Thinking to Kids with SparkTruck

Cross-country summer project leads to speaking engagements for McCormick’s Rachel Star

At a time when engineering thinking is increasingly needed, many elementary schools lack the funds and the flexibility to teach hands-on building to their students.

Enter SparkTruck. Over the course of a 14,000-mile journey, this truck-turned-activity-center circled the country last summer, stopping at museums, parks, libraries, and even corporate campuses to give kids — and sometimes their parents — an unforgettable experience in brainstorming and building.

Behind the project was a handful of college and graduate students, including Northwestern University sophomore Rachel Star. The idea got its start as a thesis project by two Stanford University master’s students; Star, a San Mateo, California, native, connected with them last summer through a family friend.

“School systems have become so focused on test scores and college applications that they’re often not able to integrate a lot of creative work,” says Star, a double major in manufacturing and design engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and psychology at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “The world is evolving so quickly that, for a lot of these kids, the jobs they will hold someday don’t even exist yet. Somehow, we need to prepare them for that.”

The answer, Star says, is not to teach them a formula. It’s to teach them to create their own formula.

Between June and October, the SparkTruck team did just that. At dozens of workshops from California to the East Coast, the team — working out of the back of the truck — gave kids the chance to work with hammers, nails, glue, paint, and also high-tech tools like laser cutters and 3D printers. At a stop at Northwestern, SparkTruck held a special session with Design for America. (Star spent six weeks on the truck, but flew back to Evanston in late September for the start of classes.)

At each workshop, participants were tasked with a project; for example, kids were sometimes asked to brainstorm a list of animals that lived on land and another of animals that lived on water. They then picked one animal from each and combined them into an imaginary animal, which they then brought to life as a small, battery-powered device.

“It’s cool because half of the kids would look at us as if to say, ‘Are you crazy? I don’t know how to make an animal,’” Star says.  “And it does take a while for them to succeed at it, but that’s the point. You keep working, and it’s an evolving process.”

The results are fun, too: like one helicopter/butterfly/caterpillar/human created by a girl in Chicago. (The creation doubled as a fan.)

The team isn’t sure what will happen next; while the truck’s lease ended October 31, they’re in talks with universities and corporations over ways to continue the project.

In the meantime, word is spreading about SparkTruck. The project garnered so much attention that the team was invited to speak at two national events this fall, including TED Youth Day in New York City and the Autodesk University conference in Las Vegas.

As for Star, the SparkTruck project has also changed her career outlook. While she had been gearing up for a career in product design, she is now increasingly interested in the psychology behind engineering. 

“We need to create a mindset that makes engineering possible, to create a culture where designing and building and creating are more accessible,” she said. “That’s my goal.”