This Maker Camp thought piece is adapted from Making Makers: Kids, Tools, and the Future of Innovation
How are you going to design something if you’ve never built anything?
—University of Virginia Engineering Professor William Guilford
In the fall of 2011, as I was taking a break from grading my students’ assignments, I found myself stopped by the preceding quote in an engineering education magazine. After six years of teaching undergraduate engineering design classes, I shared Dr. Guilford’s sentiment.
In my classes, I found that the truly innovative designs most often came from students who were able to couple rigorous analysis (which is the focus of many engineering programs) with a practical knowledge of how machines work. The latter is knowledge that comes primarily from taking things apart, putting them together, and learning what has worked (or not worked) in other devices.
While I can assume that all of the first-year engineering majors that I teach have taken a math class, I can’t assume that they’ve spent time taking things apart or building things.
As someone who reveled in making things (out of wood, out of cardboard, out of fabric, out of sand, out of… anything) as a child and teenager, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that many young adults, particularly those who were going into a field of study focused on creating things, had so little experience actually making things.
I read Guilford’s article the same week that I attended World Maker Faire in Queens, New York. This event celebrates the creators of things ranging from robots to costumes.
The engineering professor in me saw some incredible examples of technology, but more than anything, what I noticed were the people who were passionate about creating things and sharing their knowledge with others. The excitement was infectious and evident in attendees of all ages. Throughout the fairgrounds, there were opportunities for children and adults to learn skills like soldering, energizing conversations about the intricate details of various 3D printers, makers young and old showing off the things they’d made, and a pervasive air of curiosity.
That sense of curiosity and collaboration is what I wish for all of my students, as well as for my own children.
I am definitely not alone in my desire to encourage children to actively create the world around them. Makerspaces, places where people get together to use tools and work on projects, are popping up around the world. We’re seeing them in libraries, schools, community centers, and homes. Project instruction sharing sites allow users to freely share step-by-step directions for making everything from playful electronic gadgets to furniture to tomato soup.
The Maker Movement, and the self-identified makers who are at the heart of it, celebrate many of the qualities and actions that educators have long been trying to promote: lifelong learning, self-directed learning, communication, collaboration, creativity, and design.
At a time when there is an increased emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in the PK-12 curriculum, the growth of the Maker Movement presents great opportunities for increasing technical literacy and reintroducing people of all ages to the arts of making and tinkering.
The kids I watched at World Maker Faire, and at every Maker Faire I’ve attended, are asking great questions and doing “real” projects with the purest of motivations: they are curious and having fun. They aren’t attending because it’s a homework assignment, or learning to solder because it might be on a test. To be honest, most of them probably aren’t even sure why learning to solder is useful yet; they just know that if they learn to do it in the Learn to Solder tent they’ll get to wear, and keep, a cool blinking-light badge.
And they’ll leave the Faire with more than just that badge. They’ll leave knowing what soldering (or sewing, or woodworking, or cooking, or drop-spinning) is and that they can do it.
Which brings me back to Dr. Guilford’s question: “How are you going to design something if you’ve never built anything?”
I’d add to that and say: How are you going to build something if you’ve never taken something apart? How are you going to come up with interesting ideas and solutions if you’ve never been allowed to play with physical and digital bits and pieces?
It takes a playful, curious person to take things apart and imagine new ways to put the parts back together. This describes most makers, but also almost every young child that I’ve met. Anyone who has been around a roomful of children with access to a pile of craft or building materials has likely seen the happiness that typically accompanies such endeavors. Youthful creativity combined with readily available materials often leads to a whirlwind of wonderful things.
The creative adult is the child who survived.
—Ursula K. LeGuin
It usually doesn’t take much effort, or the creation of any incentives, to convince young children to jump in and start making. As the age of the group gets older, though, the dynamic sometimes changes. We start to hear more questions: Why should we do this? Am I doing this the right way? I’ve made Squishy Circuits (a method for using conductive and nonconductive play dough to sculpt working circuits) with people of all ages, and I’ve rarely had a child turn down the opportunity to try it out. With adults, though, I’ve often seen reticence or protests of “I’m not good at that sort of thing.”
It’s not coincidental that many authors who write about innovation, creativity, and design talk about the importance of approaching challenges with a childlike enthusiasm. Ursula LeGuin, an author who is known for her imaginative fantasy and science fiction writing, once worded this as: “The creative adult is the child who has survived.”
Unsurprisingly, many people who I speak to about making share this approach. When I asked Amon Milner, a maker/educator, what a “maker” was, he replied that “[all] people are makers. And the conditions in which people can grow up and have that supported and still do it into adulthood is a very special person… Every [child] is a maker and some get to stay that way longer.”
How do we empower children to become, and remain, makers?
Once upon a time, spaceships resided primarily in movies, books, and the dreams of children, some of whom, after spending their teenage years working on their cars and tinkering, grew up to become the men and women who made manned — and unmanned — spaceflight possible. I believe that it is essential for us to empower today’s children with the tools and skills they need to make their dreams tangible. The Maker Movement is a shining example of how we can do this.