Students cycle coast-to-coast to bring engineering to life


Cycling more than 3,000 miles across the United States from San Francisco to Washington D.C., seven dedicated college students from Harvard, MIT and Columbia spent their summer showing America’s youth how fun and fascinating engineering can be. Completing an 80-day trip, the students rode town-to-town conducting engineering workshops at nine schools and organizations.

Why you might ask? The students were part of Spokes America, a program launched in 2013 by a group of MIT students who wanted to re-think traditional education methods. Affiliated with Teach for America, Spokes America’s aim is to teach middle and high school students through hands-on, project-oriented classes and experiences.  

This year, Team Spokes was comprised of seven students, four from MIT, two from Harvard and one from Columbia, with only one student having any serious cycling experience prior to embarking on the trip. However, all possessed a passion for education, especially teaching in their respective fields.  

Sam Green, a sophomore at Harvard, described the experience as “more about the journey than the destination,” especially when interacting with kids and making observations.

“We worked with some students who didn’t come from areas that were well-served educationally,” he explained. “Some students were better prepared than others to grasp basic engineering concepts.” However, he says curiosity was the common thread throughout the trip adding, “You can’t teach physics concepts in 45 minutes, but you can leave the students with a positive experience in relation to engineering.”

One of Sam’s teaching projects involved coding and basic electrical engineering, programming the TI MSP430G2 LaunchPad to create an LED light show. Building the light show and showing the students how to code gave them a new perspective on what engineering is all about. While some kids had difficulty with the concepts, all were able to share in building the light show and had fun engaging and seeing how it worked.

Wherever possible, Team Spokes also infused bicycling into their teaching sessions. Blogging about her experience in Cedar City, Utah following a demonstration to create a bicycle powered blender, MIT graduate Emma Benjaminson said, “We sat down with some of the kids, asked them about their experiences with bicycles, and then talked to them about sprockets, free-wheels, hubs, tires, fixing flats, motors, magnets, electricity and more.  We let a couple of the students completely hack apart a blender motor, which they were totally into.”

“We felt like we reached a huge slice of the population from a whole range of backgrounds,” said Emma, “whetting the exploratory appetites of kids who had never seen a LaunchPad or a motor before, and encouraging other students with some prior knowledge to carry on the path.”

Learn more about Spokes America
Explore more ways to use the TI MSP430 LaunchPad
Read about the early stages of the 2014 Spokes America trip
See pictures from the 2014 Spokes America trip