The classroom at Brea Olinda High School was a cacophony of high-pitched beeping coming from electronic toys playing “Silent Night” and other tunes.
High school students were altering the sound boxes of the toys as part of a “toy hacking” workshop, led by UC Irving research scientist Garnet Hertz.
“It’s hard to figure out how computer chips work – how to get them to work the way you want,” said Liam Gillanders. Gillanders and fellow student Michael Hannum were trying to get the sound box inside their Mozart-playing crib toy to make some other kind of noise.
The goal for the students isn’t necessarily to learn how electronics work, though that could be a byproduct of the workshop.
The idea is for the students to try something new and get creative, said their high school computer science teacher, Todd Salesky, who offers these kinds of enrichment workshops as part of the school’s Global IT Academy.
“We’re trying to appeal to a broader audience,” he said. “I’m trying to teach them to be technical.” Students in the Global IT Academy program at Brea Olinda take one elective each year in computer science.
Salesky is aiming to prepare students for college and the job market. “The idea behind the program is to have experiences beyond the classroom,” he said.
On this day, UCI researchers were conducting a study to see if their handson toy hacking workshop boosted the students’ interest in science. The researchers surveyed the students before the class and had planned to survey them after.
The toy hacking project is funded by a National Science Foundation grant. The UC Irvine researchers plan to take the workshop to other schools and train teachers how to do their own, said Amelia Guimarin, a UC Irvine graduate and anthropologist who assisted at the workshop.
Hertz assisted the students in making use of a potentiometer, which regulates the flow of electricity.
The potentiometer can make “Silent Night” sound like it’s dying.
The toy hacking workshops were originally designed for adults, Hertz said. He has four children, and after observing his daughter go through elementary and middle school, he thought he could make science more interesting for school-age kids.
He’s still got kinks to work out, such as how to make toy hacking less dangerous.
It’s possible to start a fire. “There is physical danger. The kids totally love that,” he said. “It adds to the excitement.”