Finding Creativity In Constraint: Our Saudi Arabia Maker Camp Experience

Finding Creativity In Constraint: Our Saudi Arabia Maker Camp Experience

The automatic doors whooshed open, and the oppressively hot summer air hit me in the face. An SUV pulled up to the curb, and whisked me away from the airport, along multi-lane freeways that snaked through the dark, dusty night of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Far ahead, fantastical skyscrapers stretched into the night sky, illuminated by glowing neon signs with curling Arabic script. In the darkness, I could just barely make out people sitting around campfires, picnicking in the desert.

This was the start of a month-long stay in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I was there to lead a team organized by Maker Media, charged with developing and delivering a summer maker program for a hundred high school students. The project was sponsored by SABIC, a huge chemical conglomerate in the country, and most of the students were the sons or daughters of SABIC employees. National TalentS Company, a Saudi education company that specializes in creative learning experiences, helped to organize logistics, hire local staff, translate program materials, and introduce us to the cultural context. Two educators from FabLab Egypt, a vibrant maker space in Cairo that has organized the Maker Faire there since 2015, joined the team as well.

Travel to Saudi Arabia is restricted, and visitors entering the country require letters of invitation. In the weeks leading up to our arrival, we went through a complicated process of gathering documents and contacting embassies, finally managing to secure the proper paperwork for the diverse group of makers from all over the U.S. that would be leading the program.

Our group included Xanthe Matychak, an educator and designer from Ithaca College, and Matt Stultz, the Digital Fabrication Editor from Make: magazine. The rest of the team consisted of educators, exhibit developers, artists, a camp director, a CNC operator, and a physics bus driver. This team brought a diverse set of skills and experiences to the table, embodying the wide range of projects and ideas that make up the maker movement.

We knew that the camp would be three weeks long, but it was up to us to work together to develop activities and sessions. We decided to focus on giving students an introduction to the large topics of electronics, fabrication, and robotics. With these themes in mind, we planned a series of workshops that used a variety of high and low-tech tools and materials. We took a constructivist approach to the curriculum, and designed it so that the students could develop their own ideas and ways of understanding, built on connections to their prior knowledge. We gave them the freedom to create their own challenges, emphasized collaboration over competition, and valued the process over the end product. The main goal of the program was to help the students start to develop their attitudes and dispositions as makers. Sparking their curiosity, and encouraging self-motivated learning was more important to us than covering any specific content during the course of the three weeks.

These ideas would set this program apart from many STEM camps and classes anywhere in the world, and we were curious to see how they would be received in Saudi Arabia, a society with strict gender roles and limits on personal freedom. We were unsure of how this emphasis on creative expression would go over, and we tried to approach the experience with an open mind, hoping to learn more about the unique maker community that already exists in the country.

Training the Local Facilitators

The day after arriving in Riyadh, our team took a couple of taxi cabs to SABIC Academy, the company compound and training facility that would be our home for the duration of the program, and we met the local facilitators. They were fifteen young men and women who were hired by TalentS to lead the sessions and mentor the students. We started by going around the circle and introducing ourselves. Right away, I was impressed by their wide range of interests and expertise. Most of the male students had been trained as engineers and many of them were interested in alternative ways of teaching young people about science and technology. The female facilitators included coders, professors, teachers, and two sisters who operated a women-only makerspace in Riyadh.

For the next three days, we immersed them in an intensive professional development workshop. This was a crucial part of the program, and a whirlwind course in constructivist learning. We led a series of activities where they were encouraged to participate fully and reflect on their process of learning to identify some practical skills for teaching and mentoring. We were relying on these facilitators to run the program and we also hoped that this group of young people might become enthusiastic leaders in the Saudi Arabian maker community.

The facilitators were engaged with the activities, but felt unsure about how the local high school students would react to this style of learning. They thought the students wouldn’t necessarily have an interest in science and technology. They also wondered if some of the activities, like scribbling machines and cardboard automata, would seem too simple and questioned what they should do if people finished the projects too quickly.

These concerns are common for any group of people trying to teach making and tinkering education for the first time, but there were other issues that were unique to Saudi Arabia. They have a strict culture of gender segregation, so we had to separate the male and female participants in the program. This created a logistical challenge for the program, where there would essentially be two camps running simultaneously.

Bayan Al-Arifi, one of the female facilitators, shared her perspective on the issue. She said, “It has pros and cons. For example, in a culture like this, in a class that’s interactive, where the students move around a lot to get materials, it’s definitely more comfortable for the males and females to have their own space and privacy.” She continued, “but one of the negative things is that males can always learn from females and females can always learn from males.”

Over the course of the program, we learned that the gender issue is much more complicated than it seemed at first glance. Women make up a majority of college students in Saudi Arabia, and many pursue advanced STEM degrees, but they make up a much smaller fraction of the workforce than males. While these were complex cultural issues that we couldn’t challenge, we took this opportunity to pull together a group of female facilitators that included makers, artists, and designers from around the world that could be role models for the female students. They worked closely with them over the three weeks, encouraging the students to try new tools, learn programming, and build confidence in their ideas.

We spent our first weekend (Friday and Saturday in Saudi Arabia) getting organized and looking for materials. We had to make a few emergency supply runs across the busy street to Jarir, a cross between an art supply store, Office Depot, and the electronics section of Best Buy. It was an invaluable place to pick up pipe cleaners, colored paper, googly eyes, and other important tinkering materials.

Over the next couple of weeks, we ventured further into the city, where we discovered whole streets devoted to different types of materials. We visited a street lined with shops selling brightly colored cloth, spools of thread, and a dragon’s hoard of sparkling embellishments. We settled for a multihued pack of felt for sewing circuits and moved on. A row of stationary shops was the place to find large rolls of white paper for scribbling machine table cover, and just past the date market, we found a bunch of cardboard boxes big and small. And the electronics market is maker heaven! It’s composed of winding alleyways of tiny shops; each filled with switches and twinkling LEDs, salvaged electronics, and spools of wire.

The Program Begins

After the first weekend of shopping, resting, and preparing for the program, the camp began with the male and female students and facilitators going their separate ways to two mostly identical workshop rooms on either side of the building. After introductions to the program and facilitators, we split each group of students in half so they could alternate between workshops taking place every other morning. On the first day, one group explored circuits using breadboards and simple components. The other group investigated the more artistic side of electronics using copper tape, LEDs, and colorful paper to create circuits. The second day, they switched, so both groups were able to explore these two different approaches to electronics.

The next two days focused on fabrication. One group explored low-tech cardboard construction techniques, while the other experimented with high-tech fabrication, using Onshape 3D design software to create custom phone cases, fidget spinners, and chess pieces. We hoped that learning about both high and low-tech tools would give students the perspective that there are many ways and approaches to solving problems.

In the afternoons, both groups participated in a “design lab.” They practiced identifying challenges in their daily lives, and coming up with their own unique solutions. We created a scheme where they could test out lots of different strategies for approaching the design process. They had large group discussions, shared with peers one on one, sketched out ideas, built 3D prototypes, and analyzed their ideas with worksheets and graphs designed to encourage divergent thinking.

Xanthe, who created this design-focused part of the curriculum, said she noticed something “unexpected but not surprising.” The students identified “basic teenager problems, like ‘my hair is really dry in this climate’ or ‘I have a hard time picking out what to wear in the morning.’” She added, “it’s fun to feel the universal teenager-ness of things that they worry about.”

At the start of the program, some of the facilitators were worried about the students’ engagement with the activities. The students were unsure of what to expect from a course on science and technology, and many of them thought it would be dry or boring. But as the students were encouraged to follow their own ideas in the workshops, the facilitators began to see a high level of interest and imagination in most of the students.

Ismail Darwish, one of the facilitators, started to understand his role as “helping organize innovation and ideas.” He expressed excitement for this, saying, “I was surprised by the amount of various ideas I can get from students, they are around fifteen years old and they already have better ideas than me.”

The first week ended with a collaborative project. The students worked together in groups to design their own “house of the future.” This prompt encouraged students to bring together the different tools and ideas they had explored during the week (cardboard construction, electronics, design and fabrication), to realize their designs.

Some of the houses focused on the materiality of cardboard, plastic, and paper as construction materials. Other houses used sensors and switches to activate lights and buzzers. Many of the designs incorporated copper tape and LEDs into their constructions. At the end of the day, the students put their houses all together to create a collaborative city, with fantastical architecture that could rival Riyadh’s.

Exploring Old and New Riyadh

We were exhausted after the first week of the program, but we still wanted to explore Riyadh. We visited the national museum, with a tour of the history of the Arabian Gulf, the foundation of Islam and an overview of the modern Saudi state. We explored the palace of that the first king of modern Saudi Arabia built in the 1930s, still filled with his opulent possessions. Our tour also included a trip to the old and slightly touristy section of the city called Dirayah, where we rode golf carts around the old walls, past families sipping coffee and taking advantage of the slightly cooler (though still pushing 100 degree) evening weather in this valley. We had dinner at a traditional restaurant called Najd Village, where we sat on the floor and passed around endless plates of delicious flatbread, chicken and rice, lamb stews, and tiny cups of strong cardamon flavored Arabic coffee.

After getting a taste of the old in Saudi Arabia, we paid a visit to a very modern space in the city. Sarah and Sana Al-Dosary, two of the program facilitators, invited us to visit Tekspacy, an all-female makerspace that they own and operate. We entered a nondescript office building, walked up a flight of stairs, down a meandering hallway, and found ourselves in a cozy makerspace full of plants, homemade furniture, and a selection of digital fabrication tools!

Sarah explained that they were trying something new in the city, and experimenting with the format. She said, “We started with a membership business model, but that didn’t work, because making and makerspaces are still new. We changed that, we accepted anyone who just walked in, we receive orders to make things, we work with whatever works for people.” This flexibility and focus on the needs of the members was evident from the moment we entered the space, and we could see how hard they had worked to develop a comfortable space. The all-female nature of the space allows women makers to work without the flowing black abayas that are compulsory in mixed-gender environments. This visit was eye-opening, challenging our assumptions and revealing some of the contradictions and complications around making in Saudi Arabia.

We began to realize that this program was not about bringing something new to Saudi Arabia, but that it was more about catalyzing a growing community of makers. Very few locals had heard of Maker Faire or Make: magazine, but we could see a rich tradition of making and crafting in the local streets and markets, and met many innovative people working to introduce new technologies in open and creative environments.

Putting Ideas into Practice

Over the next two weeks, the students experimented with more new ideas, as they designed art machines, messed around with micro:bits, experimented with e-textiles, and programmed Microbots to create autonomous drawings.

For the second half of the program, the format of the sessions opened up, and students spent more time working in teams to develop their own ideas. The assortment of projects included a “smart” watering system (that used a servo motor, drinking straw, and micro:bit), an interactive e-book with sensors for young children, and a closet of hangers that could “sense” the color of the garment for visually impaired people. We began planning a mini Maker Faire-like showcase for the last day of the program, where students could share their creations with their families, and each other.

Ibrahim, a student who originally struggled to reign in his ambitious ideas, formed a group to collaborate on a trash-collecting robot. The three students had a bit of trouble getting started, until they broke down the problem into discrete steps. They began by creating a base with two wheels and a ball-bearing that could be controlled by the micro:bit. Next, they gave their robot two arms, bent at ninety degree angles, and attached magnets to them, so their robot could pick up metal scraps as it scooted around the floor.

Mahmoud “Ayman” Mohammed, one of the program leaders from FabLab Egypt, reflected on his process as a facilitator, joining each group as they “broke down the idea into smaller problems that they could actually solve.” He continued to say that “it was inspiring watching them going through these ‘aha moments’ and connecting the dots between the different tools and technologies they have learned.”

A group of female students built a recycling machine, and showed the power of rapid prototyping and iteration. They started by experimenting with pneumatics to create a syringe-powered can crusher. They 3D printed a connector for the tubes, and iterated on its design. They built their first version of their machine’s housing out of cardboard, but their crusher was too powerful, so they used wood-working tools to build a sturdy frame.

Another group of female students took a different spin on recycling, and created a machine that could sort metal from plastic, using a sensor and a servo motor. It was a challenging and complex project, but they collaborated every step of the way to solve each new problem and make their idea work.

Jen Schachter, a Make: program leader who came for the last two weeks of the program, noticed how working on projects started to change the perceptions of the female students. She said, “I watched a number of young women transform from being afraid of the tools, either because of their perceived danger or fear of ‘messing up’ to rolling up their sleeves and telling me they didn’t need any help.” The preparations for the Maker Faire focused many of the students on getting something ready for the showcase and accelerated these subtle shifts in attitudes and mindset.

As those who have set up maker faires know, it’s quite an undertaking to prepare everything for the big event. This was magnified for us by having a hundred students scrambling to finish their projects at the same time. We set a deadline, and the day before the event all the projects had to be ready to be moved across the street to the hall. Dale Dougherty, founder of Make: magazine and Maker Faire, flew in for the last week of the program and brought a giant inflatable Makey mascot in his checked baggage.

A Maker Faire Prototype

On the day of the final event, there was a nervous energy in the building from both the students and the facilitators. We assembled a cardboard cabinet of curiosities and set up a soldering station for people to add LEDs to Makey and giraffe badges.

The final event was not open to the public, so the audience included VIPs from SABIC, the Ministry of Education, and most importantly, the parents and families of the students.

There was a ceremony, that started off with a presentation from Mark Hatch, whose Maker Partners had been instrumental in arranging the program. He spoke about the potential for makerspaces and digital fabrication to disrupt existing industries and open the door for new types of innovation. Then Dale got on stage, and highlighted the projects made by the students, characterizing their drawing machines and cardboard automata prototypes as first steps toward bigger ideas. He gave a shoutout to Tekspacy which elicited a unrestrained cheer from the female side of the room.

After the ceremony, the scene shifted to a more open Maker Faire environment. SABIC employees, students, facilitators and guests moved excitedly around the room checking out projects. It was evident that the students were proud of their creations as they pointed out the elements that you might not notice on first glance, and it was the first time the male and female students got to see each others projects.

I made a point to circle around the room and check out the projects from the female side of the program that I hadn’t been able to observe while they were in progress. I was stopped by many parents who mentioned that there daughters couldn’t wait to come into the program each day. They were excited that they got the chance to use real tools to express their own ideas.

A father stopped me to make sure that I checked out the project that his daughter’s group made. As she stood next to him beaming, her dad explained the invention, a glove to wear while driving, that would buzz a driver who might be falling asleep at the wheel. As he excitedly shared how this would be great for truck drivers and package carriers, I more closely examined the slightly subversive display with what looked like a female hand modeling the glove. It was a small gesture in a country where at this point, women still didn’t have the right to drive, but I could see all over the room how this experiment with the Maker Faire spirit might have long term effects in Saudi Arabia.

A group of female security guards left their post at the door to learn to solder. Teams of makers of both genders posed in front of the giant Makey at the entrance to the hall. High school students dragged their parents across the room, excited to show them what they had made. And participants excitedly chatted with facilitators about how they could improve their projects for the next time.

In an article titled, “Why the World needs Maker Faire,” Dale writes, “What we see at Maker Faire is that many people can do this creative work, and even more would be able to do it, if they were offered some encouragement to do so. We can learn to take advantage of science and technology while learning what each of us can do to change the world.”

This experimental program in an unlikely location was another step in that direction for makers and educators in Saudi Arabia. By focusing on training a small group of local facilitators, we encouraged them to be leaders in their own community. Hopefully, this experience will give these young people confidence in their ability to understand and change the world around them, and empower them to follow their own ideas.

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