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The following excerpt is taken from Paulo Blikstein’s essay, “Digital Fabrication and ‘Making’ in Education: The Democratization of Invention.” The essay comes from the recently published FabLab: Of Machines, Makers, and Inventors edited bu Julia Walter-Herrmann and Corine Büching. Blikstein’s project concerns the role of fablabs in the future of engineering eduction. It is one of four “vignettes” from Blikstein’s own experiences in conducting digital fabrication workshops with secondary school students around the world.UMS2382kumediWalter_neuer_Text.indd

The “Keychain Syndrome,” or the Temptations of Trivialization

For the first digital fabrication workshops we held in 2009, I designed introductory activities to get students acquainted with the machines: semi-structured short projects such as creating a keychain, a nametag, or an acrylic sign for a sports team. On a technical level these projects required students to learn how to cut and engrave using the laser cutter, use vector drawing software to create and combine geometric shapes, and import/manipulate bitmapped images from the web. I assumed that by asking them to create highly-personal objects, such as keychains and nametags, students would get excited about the technologies not only because they would create objects for everyday use, but they would decorate their rooms, school materials, and clothes with them, attracting the attention of family members and other students in the school. They would feel proud of their creations and associate their newly acquired engineering skill to the production of socially valued artifacts.

Students engaged with enthusiasm in the creation of their keychains. The plan worked. For the second session, they came back even more excited about their objects – parents, friends, even teachers wanted an acrylic keychain. Students lined up by the laser cutter to make more keychains. Excitement was in the air. Digital fabrication was succeeding, and students – both girls and boys – were very excited about ‘making stuff’.

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Paulo Blikstein.

By the third session, my team had decided that it was time to move on to new activities – in particular, I wanted to introduce robotics and electronics. I rounded up students at the beginning of the session and ran a short robotics tutorial, teaching them how to hook up sensors and motors, and write simple programs. At the end of the workshop, some students came to talk to me and asked permission to use the laser cutter for some new keychains. I postponed robotics for another day. By the fourth session, I knew something was wrong. The workshop became a keychain factory, and students would not engage in anything else. The plan worked too well – it backfired. Students found an activity that was personally meaningful, produced professional looking products that were admired and envied, and used a high-tech device. However, as much as it was a very effective solution to engage them in digital fabrication, it offered a too big reward for a relatively small effort, to produce an object that did not include any computation or complex constructive challenges. Ironically, it is as if students had discovered exactly what manufacturing is about – mass-producing with little effort – and were making the best of it. Students ‘cracked’ digital fabrication and were using the lab as a fabrication facility, rather than a place for invention.

The following dialogue, which took place several days into the workshop, illustrates the seductions of the ‘keychain syndrome’:

Facilitator: What would you do if you had a laser cutter at home?

Megan: I would make keychains.

Nancy: Yeah, and sell ‘em.

Facilitator: Keychains? What kind?

Megan: Like, these (she takes out a collection of keychains that she had recently printed).

Facilitator: Anything else?

Megan: No, just keychains.

But there was a more systemic issue at play – friends and family were focusing on the only values that they know, not coincidentally values which schools have traditionally focused on: valuing product over process. In that sense, digital fabrication is a type of Trojan horse: it introduces in schools a ‘genre’ of tools that have the very special property of easily generating aesthetically pleasing, almost magical products. Therefore, for the student-creator, there is a conflicting incentive: (i) obfuscate the simplicity of the process (“I used this laser cutter machine, it’s science fiction, it’s really complicated”), and enhance the value of the product to others, or (ii) make the process transparent (“I used the laser cutter, it’s actually not so hard to do keychains, the machine did most of the work!”), and reveal the triviality of the product.

For the educational designer and facilitator, it is fundamental to understand this incentive system to avoid this potentially harmful aspect of this ‘genre’ of machines. The feedback loop that the first incentive (obfuscating the simplicity of production) generates is that students get engrossed in the production of the same type of simple products. In the case of the second incentive, students are led to ‘un-trivialize’ the product given the new level of product complexity that digital fabrication enables them to achieve. In the first case, despite appearances, we ‘schoolify’ and trivialize the lab, in the second, we make it a place for excellence and inquiry. The solution, however, is not inconsequential – while the productover-process conundrum does not resolve itself, there will always be an incentive for simple, well-polished products, as opposed to messy, complex, and potentially ‘ugly’ projects. Unless educational designers unveil the real incentive systems at play in the classroom, teachers who reward students based on quick completion times, quality of solution, and efficiency, might actually be fostering classrooms in which students rarely venture outside of what they already know.

The ‘keychain syndrome’, therefore, revealed two of the crucial elements of learning environments based on digital fabrication. First, the equipment is capable of easily generating aesthetically attractive objects and products. Second, this generates an incentive system in which there is a disproportionate payoff in staying at a ‘local minimum’ where the projects are very simple but at the same time very admired by external observers. Settling for simple projects is a temptation that educators have to avoid at all cost. The non-triviality of navigating these new incentive systems was one of the important lessons learned in these early workshops.

Stett Holbrook

Stett Holbrook is editor of the Bohemian, an alternative weekly in Santa Rosa, California. He is a former senior editor at Maker Media.

He is also the co-creator of Food Forward, a documentary TV series for PBS about the innovators and pioneers changing our food system.


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