Developing Hands-On Learning Kits with Diego Fonstad

Othermill next to 3D printers

Looking at educator and entrepreneur Diego Fonstad’s list of accomplishments makes you wonder if he’s found a way to hack time. Aside from cofounding two biotech companies, he’s the founder of the nonprofit Zombie Cat, a collection of crowdsourced resources focused on making math and science education fun, as well as cofounder of the Imagination Supply Co., makers of hands-on educational kits for kids. Passionate about fostering the next generation of innovators, Fonstad is also Tinkerer-in-Residence in the Bourn Idea Lab, a makerspace at the independent all-girls Castilleja School, where he works with teachers across all subjects identifying ways of incorporating novel hands-on learning opportunities into their classrooms. In his infinite spare time, he’s a father of four and is credited with pioneering one of the greenest residential homes in America, with a LEED platinum rating of 114.5.

Needless to say, Fonstad is driven. His latest project is a series of embeddable circuit kits called Lectrify, and he’s on a mission to make mechanical and electronics projects accessible to makers to of all ages. Fonstad says, “Lectrify was created after observing hundreds of students building electronic projects and thinking there has to be a better way. When students use raw components, they struggle with making good electrical contacts and keeping their circuits together. When students use littleBits, they are limited by the form factor and have to take them apart when they are done because they are so expensive. Other existing solutions — sticker circuits and sewable components — were good for their specialized uses but couldn’t be used in broader applications.”

Lectrify shake it board

In March of 2015, he saw a demo of the Othermill and decided to order one for himself. Fonstad was first introduced to CNC milling nearly 20 years ago, but he didn’t start using a mill regularly until 2011, when he purchased a desktop mill for the Castilleja Bourn Idea Lab. Of that experience, he says, “That mill sat idle for many years, used occasionally as a 3D plotter. This was because we didn’t have projects for it and nobody knew how to use it.“ Then, two years later, he assembled his own desktop mill from a kit and did the initial prototyping of Lectrify using it but ran into limitations because the machine didn’t have tight enough tolerances to effectively mill PCB boards.

Lectrify prototypes

Lectrify prototypes

Excited at the prospects the Othermill offered, Fonstad, whose office is around the corner from Other Machine Co. headquarters in San Francisco, would come in on Fridays to use the in-house mills before he had his own. Fonstad’s Othermill is pictured at top in his workshop, nestled in the custom laser-cut wood and acrylic case he made for it. Of his experience developing Lectrify with the Othermill over the past 10 months, Fonstad shares, “The Othermill has been amazingly easy to use and has taken a project that was idle for over a year and helped me push it to commercialization. Upon first receiving the Othermill, I made hundreds of the smaller component boards for testing in schools and with students. The ability of the mill to make an object with tolerances sufficiently accurate enough to work with Legos helped me refine the form factor. Now that I have nailed down the specifications for the base form factor, I use the Othermill to prototype component boards that have multiple small components on them. This enables me to rapidly iterate ideas in parallel with curriculum, to ensure the newer boards map our broader curricular goals and can be easily used in a lesson workflow.”

lectrify

He adds, “I simply wouldn’t have been able to have designed the core components without the Othermill. Most PCB shops expect a square board, and your goal is to cram as many components onto as small a footprint. In my case, I wasn’t building a circuit as much as a scaffolded platform for students to explore with.”

lectrify project lego

Fonstad has been steadily developing Lectrify through rapid iteration and user testing. Conveniently, he says, “The benefit of being an educator and parent of four is that I have easy access to teachers and students for my product testing.” He hopes to launch the product on Kickstarter in early 2016.

Though the Bourn Idea Lab doesn’t have an Othermill of their own yet, Fonstad says he’s working out the optimal means to incorporate it into classes. For the meantime, he says, “I do bring it in and the students love to watch it work.”