Building functional engineers one blinky LED at a time

The conflict between expertise and innovation sits uneasily in academia, where the enterprise hinges on doling out official credentials. But a lack of expertise can in fact drive people to create the kind of disruptive technologies that really are game-changers.

Hackademia, a two-year experiment at the University of Washington, is an attempt to infect academic pursuits with a hacker ethos and challenge non-experts to see themselves as potentially significant contributors to innovative technologies.

Hackademia is a semi-formal learning group that introduces mostly nontechnical students to basic technical skills and presents them with an open-ended challenge. There have been six iterations of the group so far, and each quarter new students join, as we use a participant-observation model to explore how nontechnical adults gain technical skills.

Hackademia is driven by a desire to create functional rather than accredited engineers, to position engineering literacy as a skill that’s as important to an informed citizenry as science literacy, and to help individuals see themselves as creators rather than consumers.