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Alumnus Sparking Interest in STEM

Thursday, June 22, 2017
Shawn Hymel

The Joy Of Techs: Shawn Hymel, a 2006 computer engineering alumnus, has lots of fun at work as a creative technologist for SparkFun Electronics – and it shows in his Adventures in Science videos. (Photos courtesy SparkFun Electronics)

Shawn Hymel is an engineer who is having the time of his life helping to show that science and technology are fun.

The 2006 computer engineering alumnus has gone from designing printed-circuit boards for do-it-yourself retailer SparkFun Electronics to creating demonstration Adventures in Science videos for the retailer that reveal, in a fun-filled way, how you can use an oscilloscope, blast colleagues with Silly String or create whimsical April Fools’ Day pranks.

As the Boulder, Colo., company’s name and “Start Something” tagline suggest, SparkFun accentuates the joy of experimentation. Many of its products are circuit boards developed on the open-source Arduino hardware and software platforms, with sensors that can detect sound, light, temperature, motion or other forces. Hymel has built his own creativity into such projects as those that dispense treats when a dog steps on a weight-sensitive platform.

“SparkFun definitely has a playful mentality when it comes to work and how things are done, created, designed and built,” says Hymel, 33, one of three creative technologists producing entertaining and educational videos, tutorials and social media posts for SparkFun.

For his videos, Hymel typically dons a white lab coat and a wacky bow tie in homage to his hero, public science advocate and former television show host Bill Nye. Viewable on YouTube and the SparkFun website, the clips are aimed at a high school education level, but they also have proven popular with retired engineers. And the viewers don’t hesitate to offer critiques and commentary.

“You have to consider the demographic I’m dealing with,” he says. “Every video I make, I get some feedback that’s used to improve future videos.”

Hymel tries to complete at least two videos or comparable projects each week. Several of them are educational in nature, showcasing specific products and applications, demonstrating the proper use of lab equipment, or explaining basic concepts in engineering, programming or physics.

To illustrate the concept of electrical current, for example, he built a network of plastic tubing filled with water, with clumps of steel wool positioned as resistors.

“After about a month, the steel wool disintegrated in the water and it turned into this murky muck I’ve got to clean out,” he says. “It’s sitting on my desk now.”

During his many adventures, Hymel has been drawn toward recognizing the value of marketing, considered “the dark side” by many in his profession.

“While many engineers eschew marketing pretty hard, I view it as a platform to be able to reach the younger crowd, to encourage them to consider STEM careers, take their physics class more seriously and participate in after-school robotics,” he says.

Hymel sometimes misses the hard science of design engineering (he has a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech), but he still gets occasional opportunities to scratch that itch. For this year’s South by Southwest media conference in Austin, Texas, he helped develop a novelty item for the SparkFun trade booth: a simple circuit board project that visitors could solder together and wear like a badge to play remote games of Rock Paper Scissors with other attendees through an infrared communication network.

“It’s really silly, right?” he says. “But it was a fun icebreaker and experiential marketing campaign, and it got people excited about the things we’re doing.”

Because of this, Hymel is grateful for his current career path and the teaching opportunities it provides.

“My idols are TV personas, and having that kind of broad reach, that platform to speak to, potentially, millions, is significant,” he says.

“If I can reach a kid across the country to persuade them to pursue STEM, I call that a win.”

View some of Hymel’s favorite SparkFun videos:

How to Use an Oscilloscope

Dog Treat Dispenser

Oktoberfest B.A.C. Data Lager

Arduino April Fools’ Day Projects

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Watch more Adventures in Science videos.