Veteran journalist Melissa Jun Rowley is producing a new STEAM documentary series titled “Magic Makers.” I was intrigued to learn more about Melissa and her work, so I conducted this email interview with her.
What is the status of the show?
We’re currently in talks with a handful of online and traditional distribution channels. We’re getting some interest from production companies interested in partnering, as well. But at this stage our plan is to produce the pilot independently, launch online, and then partner with a network. The pilot production is slated for April in NYC. We are still fundraising. We only launched the campaign a week ago. What’s been really great about the campaign so far is that it’s caught the attention of a few sponsors we spoke to over a year go, who are now circling back with us. We’ll reach our goal.
At what moment in time did you realize that the maker movement was a big thing?
If I really dig deep into the pockets of nostalgia, I’d have to say I became fascinated with the maker movement long before it was packaged as the “maker movement.” My dad was an electrical engineer, so I grew up around a lot of tools and tinkering. When I wasn’t at dance class or off collecting insects by the lagoon I grew up on, I’d often go into the garage and help him build his latest contraption to upgrade our kitchen. Well, at least I thought I was helping him. I was really just sawing and sanding random pieces of wood, and playing with nuts, bolts, magnets and springs. But I loved working with my hands — deconstructing things and putting them back together. This was great for learning how things work.
As an adult, I began to take notice of the convergence of technology and the maker movement, which is where the magic happens, about four years ago when I covered a building and innovation challenge called Red Bull Creation. Teams of hackers, engineers, welders, and robotocists had 72-hours to create a vehicle that could move from point A to point B without using fossil fuels. The winning team built a giant wooden wheel that spray-painted text messages. Programming, physics, making, and design were all elements of the final products. In other words, STEAM was the epicenter of it all.
That same week, I covered Microsoft Imagine Cup, a global technology competition for high schoolers and college students. I was fortunate enough to meet a team of kids from my alma mater Ithaca College. These kids blew me away. They created a video game that incorporated a nano-bot to detect prenatal irregularities in a virtual expecting mother. I was so excited and inspired by their ingenuity. I think it was during this particular week that the idea for “Magic Makers” began to wiggle its way into my subconscious.
Have you done any teaching or volunteer work that might be also worth mentioning?
I consulted for an education and game development nonprofit called GameDesk, which was founded on the principle that kids should be empowered to learn through creative and playful experiences. All of the curricula the organization created aligned with state and national standards in education and assessment and revolved around interest-driven learning, hands-on building, discovery and inquiry. I learned a great deal about how a select number of classrooms are incorporating game-play and systems thinking into their programs, and about how crucial is it for our education system to encourage teachers to implement collaboration and problem solving into everyday classroom activities. Both the maker movement and “Magic Makers” are driven by design thinking which puts collaboration and problem solving center stage.
Growing up, who were the makers who inspired you most?
I’m going to have to say Nolan Bushnell, and not just because he was a mentor of mine when I attended the Founder Institute, a global startup incubator I graduated from in Los Angeles. Atari and Chuck E. Cheese were such tickling and sweet parts of my childhood. When I met Nolan and learned about all of his crazy inventions outside of those two iconic brands, I couldn’t help but admire his tenacity and creativity.
And, I’m a bit infatuated with Richard Feynman. I’m not sure he’d be classified as a maker, but if he were alive today he’d definitely be a STEAM ambassador. While he was a great physicist, he was quite poetic. He used such beautiful language when drawing the parallels between physics, life and nature.
Why is expanded storytelling so vital to the future success of the maker movement?
Storytelling is vital to any movement. Movements are all about people, and people connect and learn more easily and fluidly through story. With regard to the maker movement, capturing interesting stories about how people are integrating making into education, business, and open innovation is a seamless way to connect different communities and sectors. The Institute for the Future has an initiative called Maker Cities, which is researching and spotlighting the shared value of creation and collaboration in cities harnessing the maker movement. I’m looking forward to seeing what they discover.
Have you attended any maker faires or mini maker faires? If so, any comments about those events?
I attended Maker Faire in New York this past fall. Seeing the slew of 3D printing companies was exciting. I’m a huge fan of MakerBot and love the MakerBot Academy initiative to put 3D printers in every classroom. It appears we’re entering a bit of a 3D printing bubble. It will be interesting to see which companies stay standing and why. I’m especially intrigued by the trend because of what can be done to help people with physical disabilities. Magic Makers cast member, Easton LaChappelle, created a robotic prosthetic arm using a 3D printer in his bedroom.
At this last Maker Faire, I spent a lot of time at the Little Bits booth. I can’t get enough of the Little Bits electronic modules. I recently bought a set for my dad and nephew, and I want one for myself.
Do you have a particularly favorite STEAM teacher from your high school or college years?
I fondly remember my physics teacher in 11th grade. He wouldn’t give up on me. He knew that I had it in me to appreciate physics. In high school, I could have cared less about science. It’s as if I somehow lost interest in the sciences during adolescence after I was told I was an artist, and therefore wouldn’t be any good at anything technical, scientific or mathematical. Now, here I am today developing a show about kids using science and art to change the world. I guess it’s proof that anything we love as children never really leaves us.