Breakerspace: Running a Tech Take-Apart Workshop for Tweens, Teens, and Adults

Age Range: 10 and up
Time: 1-2 hours
Program Type: Registration; Drop-In

For years since I began my library career, the thought of a tech take-apart day had been running through my mind. I think I originally saw the idea on Pinterest and absolutely loved the open-ended, inquiry-based destruction. The problem was that I had no idea where to start logistically.

Then, at PLA in 2018, my uncertainties were quelled by an incredibly informative little session titled How to Run a Take-Apart Workshop for Kids led by Allison Murphy of the Wallingford Public Library in Connecticut. (I contacted her after the conference and asked for her slides, which she was kind enough to send and I have since lost track of, but if you’re interested in the contents of her presentation, I’m sure you could also get in touch with her.) Feeling empowered with my newfound knowledge, I took what I had learned back to my usual partners in crime, our teen and adult reference librarians, and asked if they were interested in teaming up to do this for all of our age groups combined. We decided to host it during what was formerly known as Teen Tech Week in March, and it went so well, we are doing it again this spring!

Here are some tips that I learned, both from the PLA presentation and from our first time facilitating this program, that hopefully will help you if you decide to plan one.

Gathering/Prepping Tech

In Allison’s presentation, she recommended to start collecting materials a couple months in advance. We sent out emails to our staff, asking them to donate old tech items that we could dismantle. We got a great variety of household items from them and some old computers, keyboards, etc. from our IT department. We put in our marketing materials that patrons could bring items to the program as well, but I don’t actually think we had anyone take us up on that. Although once patrons found out about the event, a few of them donated items ahead of time to be taken apart, even if they didn’t plan on attending the event themselves. (We have a very generous patron base; also, they probably hadn’t known what to do with that old laptop for a really long time and saw an opportunity to get rid of it!) I even grabbed an old tube TV that someone dumped at our local recycling center. You might want to contact local businesses that deal with technology such as electronics stores and repair shops or even local universities and schools to see if they would be willing to donate items. Thrift stores might also be a good option either to buy items cheap or to pass along items that are too damaged to sell. Or you can always put out a call on social media for unwanted devices.

Storage can be an issue for your tech. We had a couple of computers, printers, and even a large stereo, so be certain you have a place to store large items for several weeks ahead of the program. Luckily, we have a very flexible and longsuffering maintenance staff who are excellent about letting us stash things in weird places.

There is some preliminary work that needs to be done to ensure patron safety and minimal mess as well. I’m very fortunate that my husband has worked alongside his father and grandfather his whole life, taking random electronics apart and learning about the components. I relied on him to be our “expert” and help us identify/neutralize potential hazards ahead of time.

HUGE DISCLAIMER: Do not attempt any of this on your own without either knowing what you are doing or having the insight of a trusted expert.

You’ll want to remove and properly dispose of anything that could leak, such as batteries and ink cartridges, ahead of time. (We had one printer that didn’t get the once-over beforehand, and the poor family working on it ended up with ink all over themselves. They were very good-natured about it though.) You’ll also want to cut off all power cords (this just ensures that nothing “accidentally” gets plugged in while being dismantled). You might want to remove glass screens or any other parts that seem like they could be susceptible to breakage easily or that contain sharp edges. (We did this for some things, but not all.) You also may want to hit the innards with compressed air to disperse dust particles that have built up inside.

All capacitors should be discharged once you open something up. Some electronics (like televisions and microwaves) have high-voltage capacitors and should only be discharged by someone who preferably has done it before. Capacitors can store electricity for a long time even after the device has been turned off, and high-voltage capacitors can deliver a potentially lethal shock if you don’t know what they are or how to handle them. There are tons of YouTube videos out there that will explain what capacitors are and how to safely discharge them, but this is where I would insist that you rely on the knowledge of your expert both for you and your patrons’ safety.

Some devices have other potentially hazardous components. When we were researching our microwave, we found that it has a part called a magnetron, which can contain beryllium oxide which can be fatal if it gets into the lungs. We decided not to mess with the microwave too much and just take out a couple of things that we knew were safe.

If there is ever a doubt in your mind about whether an appliance is safe to take apart or not, err on the side of safety and DO NOT attempt to take it apart yourself or put it out for your patrons. I will reiterate, if you don’t have expert level knowledge of electronics, find someone who does and rely on them to help you. They will be able to tell you the risks and guide you toward tech items that will be safe and fun for novices to tinker with. If your expert comes across something they aren’t sure about, definitely research together before you dig in or just move on to the next item and scrap that one.

We did do all this preliminary work, which means that a lot of these devices were taken apart before the actual workshop, but our expert was great at removing the hazardous bits and assembling the rest as before so that the patrons still had that take-apart experience (just one more of so many reasons it pays to have someone around who knows what they are doing; they can take all the bad stuff out and remember how to put it back together so no one’s the wiser!).

One last note about taking things apart before the workshop: If you yourself have never done this before, it’s a good exercise to pick an item from your stash and take it apart yourself as if you are a patron participating in the program. Ask your expert to hover nearby so they can answer questions you have and explain what you’re looking at. It’s very beneficial to immerse yourself in the experience so that you can understand what patrons might struggle with, what tools you will need, and other details to consider (such as, where are we going to put all these tiny screws?, etc., and I will cover more of those things later on).

Gathering Tools

Before we get into recommended tools, I want to stress again the importance of having someone give all your tech the once-over beforehand. Not only can they check for hazardous parts and materials, but they can also examine exactly how the pieces are held together and what types of tools you might need to get into them. If it’s something that requires a tool that is too expensive or obscure for you to get your hands on, then you will probably want to leave that piece out of the choices for the workshop.

I realize that it is definitely not feasible within any library’s budget to go out and purchase a bunch of tools for a program like this. We set our max registration at 40 and the program filled up! We knew we’d need a large number of tools, so we had to source them from a number of places.

The best places to look for cheap tools are the Dollar Tree and Harbor Freight. I spent probably around $10-$15 at the Dollar Tree and got around 20 screwdrivers, as well as some tweezers and pliers. Harbor Freight always has great coupons and sometimes you can get cheap screwdrivers free with any purchase (meaning you could go in and buy something for a dollar and get a free screwdriver or a set of them). My husband took advantage of some of these deals and purchased some cheap tools that we could use for the workshop that he ended up keeping for his own use afterward. (One thing he made sure to have was a set of interchangeable screwdriver bits that covered just about any type of screw you come across, even more uncommon ones. You can find a set at Harbor Freight for around seven dollars.) Our adult services librarian’s father lent several screwdrivers and other tools to the cause, and our maintenance supervisor did as well.

Do make sure that you keep separate the tools that belong to different people. If you are borrowing from multiple people, as we did, just put a piece of tape with the person’s initials on their tools. It takes a little time up front to label everything, but then you know for sure what belongs to who at the end.

Here are the basic tools I would recommend having for patron use:
-screwdrivers (LOTS of them and a variety of types and sizes as well; not just Phillips-head and flat, but also make sure you acquire at least a couple of Torx screwdrivers. These screwdrivers have a six-pointed star shape and inevitably you will encounter some of these screws.)
-tweezers (useful for getting into hard-to-reach crevices)
-needle-nose pliers
-pry tools

In addition to these tools, our “roving experts” who were present at the program also brought tool bags with other useful items such as drills and various drill bits, wire cutters, and other tools that you may not want to put out for general use, but can give a quick assist in the hands of your experts.

Not a tool necessarily, but an important consideration is that you need something for patrons to drop tiny screws and bits into once they are removed. Magnetic screw trays are another item you can find relatively cheap (or sometimes free with a coupon) at Harbor Freight or borrow from any handy person you may have in your life. If you can’t find any that you can afford, shallow ceramic dishes will do as well. It just needs to contain those tiny parts so they don’t get lost on the floor, but not be easy to knock over when arms are moving everywhere. (It might be a good idea after your program to use a magnetic pickup tool to make a sweep over the floor anyway, since inevitably some things will end up there.)

Other Materials Needed
-work gloves (Ours were very similar to these. Small sizes for children’s hands are ideal, although ours were still a tad too big. We were also able to use them for other service projects for our teens and for volunteers in our pollinator garden, which goes a long way in justifying the cost. Plus we can use them again this year!)
-safety glasses (I can’t find the exact ones, but something like this is what we purchased. Multiple packs, of course. These and the gloves were the majority of the cost for this program, and we split it among the departments involved.)
-disinfectant wipes & paper towels (Both of these came in very handy with the ink mishap. Another thing we encountered is that some pieces of tech that have mechanical parts, like our old stereo with the disc changer, will also have grease inside.)
-first aid kit (just in case someone sustains a small injury)
-cardboard boxes and/or plastic tubs (We told patrons that they were welcome to take any parts they wanted. They simply needed to grab a cardboard box, write their name on it, and start collecting. The tubs we used for leftover unwanted parts.)
-Sharpies (to write names on the boxes)

A Few More Items of Note Before Your Program

  1. Remember that expert that helped you with all of your prep? Get them to come to the program. In fact, recruit multiple experts if you can. Not only are these additional people who can assist with difficult pieces of tech, but they can also answer questions or point out interesting parts and components to your patrons. My husband, one of our IT employees, and our adult services librarian’s father all helped with our program and made it more informative and educational as a result.
  2. Create a playlist of videos showcasing how to properly reuse, repurpose, and recycle some of the items your patrons will be taking apart, as well as highlighting some of the things they might find. Or feel free to use our playlist here.
  3. Think about what you’re going to do with the leftovers from your program and coordinate proper disposal. We knew we wanted to save some pieces to use as decoration and embellishment for “A Universe of Stories” summer reading. As a reward for donating so much of his time, I let my parts-and-bits-obsessed husband go through and choose things he wanted to keep as well. Our maintenance supervisor contacted a local scrap place who took the rest. You could always reach out to makerspaces or art studios as well to see if they could use it.

The Day of Your Program

When setting up for the program, you’ll want to space your tech items around the room to give people maximum space to work. Think about the size of your items and how many people might be working on them. A computer tower could accommodate four or maybe even six people once they get into it, but a keyboard or a cell phone may occupy only one or two. Think about these things when placing your items at tables to ensure there is enough space and seating. (Although if they really want at it, they’ll stand or work in the floor too, so don’t get too hung up on it.)

We also had a table set up that displayed the innards of the things we took apart in our test wrecks, just to give people an idea of some of the things they might see.

You’ll want to have a table with all of your tools accessible and organized by type, along with your screw trays, safety glasses, gloves, and Sharpies. We kept a cart nearby with the experts’ tool kits, first aid kit, and our cleaning supplies.

Before the wrecking begins, you’ll want to go over a few things with your patrons. These are the big points I covered with them ahead of time:

  1. Talk about different tools (different kinds of screwdrivers, pry tools, tweezers, etc.).
  2. No smashing. If you feel like you are pulling so hard that something is about to break, there is probably another screw you are missing somewhere. Be sure to check underneath labels or stickers.
  3. Be careful. Wear gloves and safety glasses at all times. Be mindful of sharp edges & corners. Circuit boards can have pokey bits on the bottoms. (You may also want to warn about dust, etc.)
  4. If there are parts you’d like to take home and use, feel free. Start a box with your name on it. Screws can be placed in dishes on the table so as not to get lost in the carpet.
  5. We have a playlist of videos showcasing how to properly reuse, repurpose, and recycle these items, as well as tell you about some of the things you might find. We also have roving “experts” to assist and answer any questions you might have about what you find inside.

Once you’ve said your piece, your patrons are good to go, and go they will! This was such a cool way to see different generations working together in a shared sense of curiosity and inventiveness. There were parents working with children, friends working with friends, and strangers working with strangers. One of our teens decided she wanted to take home all of the screws she harvested to be mushrooms in a mini fairy garden. One young boy salvaged a box full of computer parts and took them home wanting to learn how to fix his grandmother’s computer. One young man worked diligently on an iPhone for the entire program, hoping to salvage a part from it for his own phone, and patiently answering the questions of the older woman who decided to partner up with him. Many of our other participants just enjoyed getting to see the insides of common household devices and learn more about how they work.

This program takes a lot of work and research, but hopefully, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and unsure where to start like I was, this will help you and encourage you that it is doable. I would say this was one of the most rewarding programs I’ve ever been a part of in terms of meaningful learning and patron interactions. It is well worth the effort, and if you decide to do it, please don’t hesitate to reach out here or contact me at Happy wrecking!

2 thoughts on “Breakerspace: Running a Tech Take-Apart Workshop for Tweens, Teens, and Adults

  1. Thanks for sharing your tips and tricks! I have a Breakerspace program this evening, which I’ve been preparing for a while, so it was very helpful for me to read about your experience! We’ve got discarded VCR/DVD combos from a local school, a bunch of keyboards, a dead turntable, some remote controls, and other odds and ends. I’ve had fun with taking a look at the insides without having to worry about breaking anything.


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