Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Maker Within

Skills, What Skills? 

Over the past year and a half I've developed a serious personal interest in making things. It has come from the realization that as a student of our public school system that preaches to the average kid that they must get a degree to be successful. This was echoed at home, both my parents got degrees, my dad is a adjunct university instructor and is currently working on his Phd in Petroleum Engineering. Not going to university wasn't even a question for me. So in high school I didn't take mechanics or industrials arts, it wasn't seen as a valuable option in the eyes of people around me. I took that advice and stayed away.

Now I'm a grown man and I find that I'm not comfortable doing a lot of handy-work, repairing, installing etc around the house. There is a disconnect between the ideas in my brain and my abilities to execute them with my hands and the tools before me.

Learning From A Community 

It's not all doom and gloom here people. I am fascinated by the maker movement, the idea of fab labs in schools and how students of all abilities can benefit greatly from these environments. Learning by doing is an amazing motto that I've taken to heart. With the internet I can take an idea and almost certainly someone else has done what I want to do (or close to it) and has shared their experiences online, often with detailed how to's with photos and valuable advice. Many people are very candid about this and even share their 'failures' and what they have learned from them. I see mistakes as learning opportunities.

One common aspect of a lot of maker projects is the incorporation of technology. There is something immensely satisfying in using technology to make a design and then make something that you can physically touch, hold and use. Last year I did this by building 2 Makerbots. I documented the entire process (nerd). I made a ton of mistakes, but in the end they are amazing machines to make ideas become physical objects.

Building these machines gave me a lot of confidence to tackle tasks, and in the past 5 months we've acquired a laser cutter at our school that has opened up a ton of options for making in my classroom.

Shiny Machines Don't Equal Quality Learning
I learned the hard way last semester that if the technology is the focus of a project you lose the learning. I knew this was the case, but I was so pumped to use the technology that I actually had to experience that again to remind myself. Students were given a maker project to create a product for a Christmas craft fair. The whole thing hinged on the laser cutter. What ended up happening was the outcomes were not achieved at a deep and meaningful level and I ended spending a ton of time cutting and etching with the laser with students not connected to the project.

Fast forward to the next design project where students had to scrounge materials and use a mouse trap I supplied to make a mousetrap car that had to travel as far as possible down the hallway. No specific technology was the focus. Students make their cars from materials they dug up from home and the school. They put them together in the shop, with duct tape, string, K-Nex, Lego. Some use the laser cutter to make the body of the car, others, laser cut acrylic wheels. Some sketched their plans out and others used Sketchup. The technology was used when it was needed. I found students' were much more involved and focused.

Be wary of the shiny technology people, the latest app, the gadget that seems to be the answer to solve everything. ( I must add a disclaimer here that I'm as big a 'technology whore' as the next nerd so I'm in no way saying that technology shouldn't be used in classrooms. Technology is integral to my program at my school.)

Inspiring Student Makers in Schools.

Bringing the Maker Movements into schools has been talked about a lot over the past couple years. I would argue that it has always been in the many schools in one form or another.  It's only now getting more press. One thing I want to add to the experience of making for my students is an audience, some real purpose, or big problem that needs to be solved. Essential to this is integrating design thinking and the design process as a guide for student to attack these problems. (There's another post brewing for that topic!) 

One of my favourite phrases to tell students is "Hmmmm, I'm not sure, where do you think you could find out about that?" It frustrates students who sometimes want the answer right away. I'm hoping that relentless pursuit of the 'right answer' is something that will fade away, because when you are making there are no right answers. I didn't learn how to build a Makerbot by taking a 3 week course on Wednesday nights. I didn't learned how to use a laser cutter with formal training. I learned as I used them. Yesterday I needed to learn how to cut anodized aluminum for plaques in our school. A colleague took 15 minutes to show me how the foot shear in the IA lab worked and presto! I was cutting sheet metal and was able to take my design and etch it into it within 30 minutes. Pretty cool!  

What I want students to do is to think of their 'final product' as not an ending, but just the most current and likeable iteration of their designs. You might come back months or weeks later to revise it. So with this in mind, in semester 2 we are going to do a lot of making, designing, analyzing, and making some more. 

What are your thoughts about the making in schools? 

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