Quin Etnyre walks to the front of a crowded room at Deezmaker 3D Printers and Hackerspace in Pasadena, California. He adjusts his laptop on the workbench, then looks up and addresses the class. "Thanks for coming out on a Saturday," he says, his voice barely audible over the steady hum of servomotors. The students, 18 middle-aged men and preteen boys, look on as Quin straightens his MIT T-shirt and swipes an index finger across an iPod. The screen behind him flashes "Intro to Arduino Class."
He explains to the group, which includes a toy maker, an engineer, and a high-school electronics teacher, that he'll be showing them how to program an Arduino—a $30 microcontroller board that can convert sensory inputs into outputs, making objects interactive. "First I want to demonstrate some cool things I made that you can make too," he says, reaching into a backpack. Two men stop whispering and turn toward him. Quin pulls out the FuzzBot, a bug-eyed, four-wheeled robot slightly smaller than a shoebox. Then he holds up a baseball cap with LEDs stitched into the fabric.
"This is a Gas Cap. Well, it's really a fart sensor," he says, with a straight face and inscrutable tone. He describes how he programmed the lights to blink when the sensor detects methane. Several boys in the room burst out laughing. The men look confused, uncertain what to make of their instructor. They knew from his reputation that he is a rising star in the DIY-electronics movement; most didn't realize until they got here today that he is also a 12-year-old.
As the class winds down, Deezmaker's owner, Diego Porqueras, announces that Quin has some products for sale, including custom ArduSensors that can measure flex, force, light, knocks, temperature, magnetism, and, yes, methane. Quin heads to a table in the back where his parents, Ethan Etnyre and Karen Mikuni, have been hovering quietly. As the men and boys line up, Quin morphs from teacher to entrepreneur. "You get a 20-percent discount if you buy three or more products today," he says.
Cheap, open-source, and user-friendly, Arduino consists of both hardware (circuit boards) and software (a programming language). The two can be combined in an almost infinite number of ways to make even the most whimsical projects—tweeting coffee pots, automated cat doors—attainable. A team of software engineers and designers released Arduino in 2005 as a teaching tool for graduate students in interactive design, but it quickly caught on in the DIY community. By 2011, more than 250,000 Arduinos had been sold around the world, and a cottage industry of manufacturers and distributors had sprung up.
That's also the year Quin Etnyre, bored with the limits of the LEGO Mindstorms robotics kit, got hooked on soldering circuit boards at Maker Faire Bay Area. He soon began ordering components online and taught himself how to code. "When I started, I thought it was all about zeros and ones and that it was going to be really hard," Quin says. "It was so cool to learn that with just one line of code and almost-plain English, I could make an LED blink."
For his eleventh birthday, his parents—both family physicians baffled by their son's new obsession—flew with him from central California to Boulder, Colorado, where he took an Arduino class at the headquarters of online retailer SparkFun Electronics. He was the youngest student by at least a decade, but before long, others were turning to him for help.
Quin launched a company, Qtechknow, in the spring of 2012 so he could reach more people with his ArduSensors, and he wrote detailed tutorials explaining how to use them. He also negotiated a deal with SparkFun; the retailer now sells the Qtechknow ArduSensor Learning Kit, which contains several circuit boards and eight types of sensors.
Recently, Quin persuaded his parents to let him convert the family garage into a hackerspace where he and his friends could work on projects together. Now devoid of automobiles, it contains a long workbench littered with safety goggles, soldering irons, and a $30 toaster oven that Quin uses to manufacture circuit boards. Nearby, a stack of plastic drawers holds wires, LED lights, and other parts. Quin also uses the space to teach monthly workshops on such topics as how to hack a Wii Nunchuk game controller so that it interfaces with the Google Earth flight simulator. In the spring, he returned to Maker Faire—this time, as a featured speaker.
But Quin embodies a groundswell of preteen inventors enabled by cheap hardware, free software, and the proliferation of hackerspaces around the country—some, such as Maker Kids in Toronto and LA Makerspace in California, designed with young hackers in mind. "He's a bellwether for a whole generation of kids, many who haven't even been identified yet," says Jeff Branson, SparkFun's educational outreach coordinator. "We're seeing more and more kids like Quin getting together and teaching each other."
Another young maker at the forefront of this trend, Super-Awesome Sylvia (Sylvia Todd, age 12), has a YouTube show that has more than 1.5 million views. In recent episodes, she taught her audience how to build squishy circuits with LEDs and a heartbeat-sensor pendant using LilyPad, an Arduino microcontroller board designed for textiles. At the White House Science Fair in April, she showed President Obama her WaterColorBot, a robot that paints.
Both SparkFun and Adafruit Industries, another DIY-electronics retailer, have expanded their education teams to reach the next Quin and Sylvia where they study or play. "There is a worldwide demand from young people to learn more, share more, and become the next generation of scientists and engineers," says Limor Fried, Adafruit's founder. To encourage them, Adafruit now makes "skill badges"—a geeky nod to traditional Boy Scout and Girl Scout merit badges—awarding proficiency in areas such as soldering, programming, and successfully using Ohm's law.
FIRST, an organization started by inventor Dean Kamen, has also rapidly expanded. It uses robotics programs to get students from kindergarten through high school excited about engineering. This year 2,546 teams from around the world competed in its flagship event, the FIRST Robotics Competition—a 300 percent increase from 10 years ago, according to Kevin O'Connor, a robotics engineer who helps design the annual challenge.
A 2011 study published in the journal Science Education showed that high-school seniors who express an interest in pursuing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are three times more likely to complete college degrees in those subjects. The key to getting students to that tipping point, says lead author Adam Maltese, an assistant professor of science education at Indiana University, seems to be exposing them early to a STEM experience that sparks their interest, then providing them with a way to maintain it—a formula that Quin has already mapped out.
The day after his Arduino class at Deezmaker, Quin climbs into the backseat of the family car. While his dad steers onto Highway 101 toward their home near San Luis Obispo, California, Quin digs into his backpack and pulls out a Rubik's cube. He solves it in 16 seconds. Then he turns on his parents' iPad and starts typing. He explains that he's been rethinking K–12 education—and that he has come up with a much better system. He calls it the New Qtechknow School.
"School is pretty boring, but it could be a lot more interesting and interactive," he says. "More hands-on and more mentoring." According to his plan, three schools—grades K–3, 4–8, and 9–12—would sit side by side on one campus so that older students could mentor younger ones at least once a day. Quin's been helping other students with math for several years. "It's fun to teach other kids, and little kids look up to older kids," he says thoughtfully. "It helped me learn when I was young because it was fun." Plus, he points out, the older kids would get experience teaching, which would help them decide whether to pursue an education degree in college. Not surprisingly, the teachers at the New Qtechknow School would focus heavily on science and engineering.
In the meantime, Quin is making sure his current school system can provide more hands-on education. In March, he and his father visited Raynee Daley, the assistant superintendent of business services in his school district, and suggested that teachers use electronics kits in their classes. Daley didn't know anything about Arduino, but Quin impressed her with a demonstration of his FuzzBot and other projects. "I knew this kid was absolutely brilliant," she says. "And I believe that hands-on learning is critical."
A couple hours into the car ride home, Quin is still typing on his iPad, tweaking his plan to overhaul the U.S. education system. But suddenly his dreams turn more immediate and visceral. He fires up the browser and searches for the nearest In-N-Out Burger. Then he makes a plea identical to that of kids everywhere: "Can I get two orders of French fries, Mom?"
This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Popular Science.