How to Run a Tech Take Apart Workshop in Your Makerspace
Tech Take Apart is a fun, low-budget activity that gets students excited about seeing how the inner workings of electronics function. That being said, my first time attempting this activity with middle school students was a disaster (so much so that I only mentioned it and didn’t even blog about it). While at first they were calmly digging into an old alarm clock, they quickly resorted to more destructive methods, and I had to stop the activity when I realized that they had found the hammer in the toolkit and were starting to smash things to bits 🤦🏻♀️
I didn’t try this activity again for years, but when I finally did (with a mixed group of middle and high schoolers) it was such a resounding hit that my students asked to repeat it at our afterschool Maker Mondays three weeks in a row! After that, it became a regular part of our rotation. As we’ve repeated the activity, I’ve started finding things that help to make it run more smoothly:
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Tech Take Apart supplies
Sourcing supplies for a Tech Take Apart can be tricky. When I first put out a call to my community for “old” technology items that my students could take apart, I ended up with donations of huge, heavy and potentially dangerous items as well as barely used not-really-that-old items. The next call I put out included more details for clarity – items must be at least 5 years old, in non-working/functional condition. I gave examples of specific types of items: portable CD/tape players, VCRs, alarm clocks, etc. The donations were more on target this time.
If your school or district will allow it, ask if you can have old technology items that they will be discarding. This will vary depending on their policies, but you might be able to get some cool old tech to disassemble. We’ve had a lot of fun disassembling old keyboards and reusing the letter keys with this.
Thrift stores, garage sales, etc
There’s other ways to source tech for taking apart. Garage sales and thrift stores can often be gold mines, and they may be willing to make a deal with you when you tell them what it’s for. I’ve asked local electronics repair stores if they have abandoned items that were never picked up, and they usually have a few. If you have a larger thrift store chain in your area (Salvation Army, Goodwill, etc), ask them what they do with electronics donations that don’t work. Some of these larger chains will periodically auction off non-working electronics in bulk. If you can go in on it with a few other maker educators in your area, this could be an excellent and cost-efficient way to stock up on supplies and keep things out of landfills.
Pro-tip – Store your tech in a large bin as you’re gathering it together to keep things organized.
Get some tools
Basic toolkit – If you’re going to take apart old technology, you’re going to need some tools to do it with. A simple toolkit can be a perfect start – just make sure that you take the hammer out 🙂 A set of small screwdrivers like this can be good for getting at those hard tiny screws. You could also consider getting something like an iPhone repair kit, although Apple devices are notoriously hard to dig into. If you don’t have any tools, you might be able to borrow some, but I recommend just purchasing some to live in your makerspace. It’s amazing how often I find myself needing a screwdriver or a pair of pliers, and a small toolkit takes up very little space.
Precision screwdrivers and Allen wrenches – Do yourself a favor and get a set of each of these if your tool kit doesn’t have them. I often find that a lot of newer tech has unusual (i.e. not Phillips or straight) screws, and having these on hand helps you to keep going when you hit a screw that your regular toolkit can’t handle. I like interchangeable sets and full size screwdriver sets.
We want to teach our students how to be safe. This applies to our makerspace as well. Tech take apart is a fairly safe activity, but there are important safety precautions to take.
Safety googles – Being someone who has worn glasses, I chose to go with googles that can fit easily over glasses and won’t disenfranchise my students who need to wear glasses for their vision. (The ones I purchased are no longer available, but these are similar). I find that my students actually like getting to wear these because it makes them feel more like “real” scientists/engineers.
Cut the cords – If you have really advanced students who are going to be resoldering the parts into something that works, you might be able to skip this step. But if you have students like some of mine, who are likely to try to plug in a half-disassembled alarm clock to see what happens, it makes good sense to cut off the power cables ahead of time.
Keep your tech take apart organized
Tiny bins for tiny parts – Have some designated bins for small pieces to go in (I’m looking at you tiny screws). It will make clean up SO much easier and it’ll make these parts more accessible for future reuse projects. We use these bins that we bought for our pegboard wall, but any small bin would do.
Don’t put it all out at once – You may have gathered a TON of tech to take apart. Pace yourself – I will usually put out maybe 5 – 6 items at once (one to two large items and several smaller items). This will keep your space from getting too messy, and it will accommodate both students who like to work in groups and students who prefer to work alone. I usually have 8-10 students when we do these activities, so scale up or down as needed.
De-construction, not destruction
I have a mantra that I repeat over and over again when I’m facilitating a Tech Take Apart with students “De-construction, not destruction”. That student who wanted to take a hammer to an alarm clock? That’s destruction. Destruction doesn’t really teach you much. It might provide some aggression or anxiety relief, but you’re likely not learning much about how the electronics work. De-construction, on the other hand, is intentional, and focused. It’s disassembling carefully, trying to find how things connect, how the different pieces work. When I see my students starting to veer more toward the destruction side of things, I remind them of this phrase.
Curriculum Connections and Special Guests
As students dismantle the electronics, they start finding different components and how they work together. You can have students work to identify and label the various parts. If you have students with higher level skills, they could solder pieces together in new combinations to create new devices.
eWaste is a huge environmental problem, so while you’re having fun disassembling things, you can also connect to the environmental impact. Why do our electronics become obsolete so quickly? Bring in a local eWaste recycling company representative. Have students prepare questions to ask about what happens to their electronics when they’re done with them.
Circuit boards, LEDs, fans, keyboard keys and all those tiny little screws are excellent material for art projects. You can use hot glue guns to transform them into sculptures. You can glue keyboard letters to cardboard to create secret messages. One of my favorite design challenges is to have students design their own “robots” out of the parts.
After you’re done
When you’ve finished up, store and save salvageable parts that can be reused in future projects. We love to save all the tiny little screws and work them into future projects. You’ll also end up with a lot of unusable parts. If you have plastic parts that are labeled with a recycling symbol, go ahead and recycle them (check with your local municipality). For the rest, look for a local electronics recycling company. We love UrbanE Recycling here in Tampa and they will come and pick up everything, recycle it responsibly, and destroy any hard drives. They even send a video of the hard drives being shredded, which can be fun to show your students.
Buy these books for your makerspace library, and keep them on hand when students are working – they might get inspired!