Have you ever thought about how makers measure their success? Obviously, making a successful project is a pretty good sign. But, what about the times where a project doesn’t work like you envision? I’m talking about when the making process of brainstorming, prototyping, and creating results in, well, nothing. A flop. A failure. A pile of parts and pieces spread about. Imagine if makers were assigned “making averages” in the same vein as a baseball player. Batting averages, estimates of a player’s success calculated by the number of times they get a hit divided by the number of times they step up to bat, are easily obtainable statistics that identify truly great swingers. An exceptional batting average is considered around .300, or 3 hits out of every 10 at-bats. Following the same logic, the maker equivalent would be about 3 successful projects out of every 10 attempts. That seems like a strange marker of success, doesn’t it? Having only a 30% “success” rate sounds less than ideal. However, the Make: Learning Labs program showed me that, like baseball, numbers like this don’t really indicate successes or failures; there is a lot going on behind the scenes of making that a mathematical equation can never capture.
2013 was my first year playing with Make:; I was 9 years old and my parents took me to one of the coolest places I had ever been — Maker Faire Bay Area in San Mateo, California. I watched in awe as the movies and toys I loved literally came to life around me; giant replicas of WALL-E and the Mouse Trap board game were highlights. I was hooked, this was a true home run. The next year, my dad and I got the equivalent of a maker’s Golden Ticket: a free pass to enter the Faire early. We had the entire complex practically to ourselves — a dream come true, which gave me even more time to absorb the magnificence of the DIY creations. I saw miniature Lego dioramas of Gondor from The Lord of the Rings and various battles from across the Star Wars galaxy. I came across a gigantic steampunk submarine on wheels and befriended one of the life-sized R2-D2s, who followed me around for what seemed like the entire day. Over the next few years, I would re-create Back to the Future’s iconic poster (while inside a DeLorean replica), find an action-packed diorama made entirely out of masking tape, watch far too many Mentos shoved into far too many bottles of Diet Coke, and witness the largest bubble blower in the world make a string of soap bubbles about the size of my house. It was all amazing, and I always left the Faire feeling inspired and ready to make my own wondrous invention.
But, that never ended up happening. Despite my love of the finished products at Maker Faire, I was never quite as excited about the process of making, or actually stepping up to the plate. I was deathly afraid of a soldering iron for too long. I cannot use scissors to save my life. I never forgot the excitement I felt while at the events, though, which is why I was so interested to learn that Make: was sponsoring a program geared towards introducing young adults to making, called the Make: Learning Labs. I made my complete lack of experience very clear in the applications, but I got drafted into the majors anyway. How did that turn out, you might ask? Well, my final project wasn’t a 40-foot steampunk fire-breathing octopus or a life-size version of Chutes and Ladders; it’s actually this article, highlighting what I’ve learned both about making and about myself.
Practice is important. No matter how skilled or talented a maker might be, they’re not going to
build R2-D2 on their first try.
The Learning Labs program was an internship designed to introduce a variety of making concepts over a 12-week period, and I joined 12 other interns for the pilot season (a summary of the program can be found at learn.make.co). Truth be told, I was ready to quit after the first week. I felt hopelessly underqualified and struggled to understand the basic concepts from class while the other interns seemed confident enough to start exploring on their own time. Before walking off the field, though, I set up a meeting with Program Director Nancy Otero. To my surprise, she agreed with my assessment that I was a tee-ball player suddenly drafted into the World Series, but she also assured me that my skill level didn’t really matter that much. When I asked Nancy what she meant, she said that the program was really just about learning. We weren’t expected to create a world-changing miracle idea, but instead go along with the program and see what we could get out of it. Nancy convinced me that if I was going to be minoring in the majors, I might as well enjoy myself.
With somewhat renewed confidence, I plunged myself back into the first part of the Learning Labs program. This “Inspiration” phase was meant to expose us to a wide array of making concepts on a daily basis for two weeks. We had guest speakers, lectures, homework assignments. The topics varied quickly, from basic coding to constructing paper circuitry. I found that if I stayed focused on learning, as opposed to what my finished product looked like, I could actually enjoy myself. My favorite portions of this phase were the ones that had very clear instructions — beginner makers like me need all the help we can get. Nancy then split us into groups and told us to go create something, and we got to experience the philosophy of making from idea to execution. After this, everyone signed up for three Deep Dives, one- or two-week workshops that went in-depth on a particular making discipline. In other words, speciality training so we could hone our skills for the grand finale of the program — final projects. That’s where this article came to life: instead of making something, Nancy asked me to write about my experience in the program, and I gladly accepted.
After successfully completing the Make: Learning Labs initiative in one piece (no fingers were lost in the making of this article), here’s my post-game analysis:
- Creativity inspires creativity. Between the guest lecturers, the mentors, and the other participants, this program showed me that the Make: community is filled to the brim with creative people and wildly interesting ideas. I also found that it doesn’t take much for that creativity to rub off.
- Practice is important. No matter how skilled or talented a maker might be, they’re not going to build R2-D2 on their first try. Becoming proficient in making is no different than learning any other skill; with enough time and practice, you can — and will — improve.
- There are different positions to play on and off the field. No team wins with only pitchers or batters. I learned this during my first group project; I may not have been the best maker partner, but I did a great job in making our hard work look presentable. I doubt I’ll be at a future Maker Faire as an exhibitor, but I can always see myself in the audience (or even with a press pass).
- Learning for the sake of learning is actually really useful. There are no grades, no tests, no GPA to worry about, it’s just you and the materials you need. This type of learning is also super flexible about interests, dislikes, and even who can participate. One of the people in the Arduino Deep Dive looked as old as my grandfather. That’s really inspiring.
- Striking out happens way more than hitting a home run. Whether it’s a simple error (making a mistake in one line of code) or something that’s a bit more significant (accidentally leaving your heater too close to your Petri dish and melting the agar and growing bacteria), projects usually go through several versions. But even if you only have a 30% success rate, that’s still a phenomenal batting average.
And that’s the story of how a non-maker took part in an experimental making crash course. Even though I struck out more often than not, I’d still call it a success. I may not become the next breakout inventor who creates exactly what the world needs, but at least I got a new perspective on what those geniuses go through.
More projects from the inaugural Make: Learning Labs
The Mr. Night Costume
Illuminated costume designed to get younger children interested in STEM. Built-in lights activate kids’ imaginations as a gateway into astronomy and other subjects.
Dafne Isadora Cruz Medina,
Rodrigo Moreno Oaxaca, and Brian Mustafa
Easy-to-use security device designed to protect women from gender-based crime and violence in public. Sends GPS location and pictures of the situation to emergency contacts when triggered.
Customizable Pocket AAC
Mia Farraday and Regina Alatorre Nava
A low-cost, open source augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device for
Kate Southern, Gabriela Lopez, and
Saul Najera Aguirre
Portable high chair with massaging function, to help combat chronic pain in adults.
Jannet Galva Acosta and Yolotzin Oreday Osorio
Drone-based service that takes photographs of structures, then analyzes them with machine learning to identify their level of danger.
Learning Labs needed a logo that could capture
the spirit of the program, and badges for completing Deep Dives. This project created digital designs for Learning Labs.
See more on the projects from all the participants of the inaugural Make: Learning Labs and get more information on how to participate at learn.make.co.