Fireside Chat: Tom Heck – #EPICwin

The fire’s been stoked and tea’s just been served, so now’s an excellently opportune moment to sit down and catch up with educator, tech‐enthusiast, and all‐round nice guy, Tom Heck.

Tom is the former leader of Purdue University’s EPICS (Engineering Projects In Community Service) program. He now oversees a national effort which seeks to teach engineering and design thinking to able‐bodied middle and high school students by teaching them how to design, prototype, build, and deliver assistive technology solutions (using Makey Makeys) for elementary school kids living with physical and cognitive disabilities.

Computer science in the community?? Sounds amazing and noble!

A teacher friend of mine, Joe Speier, invited me to lead a computer science community project at the Asheville School where he works. He was keen for a group of students to participate in an EPICS‐style program.

EPICS was developed in 1995 in the engineering department at Purdue University. Its goal is to encourage students to solve problems for people using an engineering /design thinking approach. While a normal EPICS project can last several months or more, I had just three weeks – to plan and deliver the entire program! Given that time was very much of the essence, Makey Makey was the perfect platform to use with this project. Because it’s so easy to use the students could quickly focus on designing rather than developing their devices.

Hang on – that’s a new one on us! ‘Assistive technology’?

Well, according to my good friend, Wikipedia...

"Assistive technology promotes greater independence by enabling people with disabilities to perform tasks that they were formerly unable to accomplish, or had great difficulty accomplishing, by providing enhancements to, or changing methods of interacting with, the technology needed to accomplish such tasks."

I concur. Wholeheartedly (!).

How did the project get off the ground?

The Asheville students were paired with kids from Hall Fletcher Elementary School public; building assistive tech game controllers that enabled the elementary students to play flash‐based games on a laptop. The solutions were built using cardboard, aluminum pie pans, metal scrub pads, aluminum duct tape, a $6 blue poly tarp, and a few other inexpensive odds and ends.

What have been some of the best results of the program?

The elementary school children absolutely loved playing the computer games with controllers designed just for them. Plus they enjoyed the attention given to them by the high school students – who found the project equally rewarding. They learned about prototyping and designing through the lens of empathy.

What’s next?

I've assembled a team of volunteers, all educators, who are now working on creating a lesson plan based on this project. The lesson plan will be freely shared and used by any educator to teach a mini course on engineering, design, and innovation using the Makey Makey.

How important are ‘Maker skills’ in modern education?

Let me put it like this: it used to be that creating a robohand was only possible if you had access to expensive equipment, software, and training. Now there are high school students building robohands for kids in their community. The greatest opportunity for the Maker movement is the ability to create real solutions for real people right now – not someday in the future.


COO of Makey Makey