This Makerspace Wants You to Fail

This Makerspace Wants You to Fail


The current goal of the Steam Factory Makerspace is to build a hovercraft. But before you build a hovercraft, you have to build a toolbox. And before you build a toolbox, you have to fail at building a toolbox. That failure is critical.

This is exactly how the first Steam Factory workshop kicked off in a donated space in downtown Oakland, California. Eight parent-child teams, led by organizer Parker Thomas, come together once a week to collaborate, design, fail, and build. Having started quite literally without a (table) leg to stand on, they first built a toolbox and then a table from scratch, and they hope to complete a two-person hovercraft in time for the East Bay Mini Maker Faire on October 18.

“Once you instill in kids that it’s okay to fail, they do things that are really surprising,” says Brie Burnham, Steam Factory’s graphic designer. This “failure positive culture” is a core tenet of Steam Factory, a new pop-up Makerspace model organized around S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education and mentorship.

The brainchild of Oakland-based museum design firm Gyroscope Inc. and Maker Parker Thomas, the program pairs local creative professionals with groups of kids who work in tandem to complete a project. Thomas, a founder of Urban Montessori School and former Make: employee, wanted to implement a new educational model where failure was no longer seen as something to painstakingly avoid.

Building a table
Building a table

Failing (otherwise known as a First Attempt in Learning) embodies the learning philosophy that Louise Mackie, and Thomas believe to be necessary in the 21st century’s ever-evolving job market. Mackie, Gyroscope’s architectural designer and Steam Factory’s project lead, says, “The best way is to teach kids critical thinking and creativity in various ways so that they believe in themselves and have agency to push their ideas, and the best way to do that — as far as I can see — is to get them to complete a project and feel like it’s their project, like they own it.”

After meeting at a barbeque and chatting about their similar backgrounds in design and education, Mackie and Thomas decided that Oakland was in particular need of a program such as Steam Factory. “There are so many creative people making so many different things [in Oakland],” Mackie says, “And there’s also so many children that don’t have access to all these creative opportunities. If we can make this happen then I think it’ll be really rewarding for everyone involved.”

Thomas collaborating with some young hovercraft builders
Thomas collaborating with some young hovercraft builders

When Mackie says everyone, she’s not just talking about kids and parents. Steam Factory’s model is meant to act as a symbiotic mentorship — Mackie describes the mentoring role as a catalyst, working on a project alongside kids rather than just teaching them something. Everyone benefits. The kids discover that the world is malleable and that they can change it. They learn to look at an everyday object like a picnic table and see it as something more, something with potential that they can take apart and recompose differently. And this mentorship is equally rewarding for adults. As Burnham says, “it’s important for professionals to get engaged with their area, their community. Working with kids gets rid of a lot of grown-ups’ preconceptions.”

Mackie hopes to prove the viability of Steam Factory by conducting three very different workshops successfully: building a hoverboard, renovating the Covenant House homeless youth shelter, and hacking picnic tables. After she demonstrates that these workshops can run smoothly, the next step is simply to figure out how to move forward. “When you think ‘oh, if only I had done this a different way, I would have saved all that time,’ that’s when you really learn,” says Mackie. “Someone could tell you to do it a certain way, but you won’t remember it as well.” Arguably, this is what Mackie and Thomas have embarked on in organizing a program such as Steam Factory — they are plunging in and figuring out what works and what doesn’t as they go. There is no official roadmap for such an unconventional model of S.T.E.A.M. education.

So if there’s no roadmap, what’s one to do if they want to see a program like Steam Factory in their city? Mackie advises you to follow their model. Do a class. Ask your community for a space to use. Don’t think in the long term, just take the most immediate, smallest steps you can. Tell everyone. And before all else, don’t worry and have fun! In the same way that the hovercraft class had to start by building a toolbox, sometimes you just need to start on the most immediate need in front of you and continue, bit by bit, until you’re humming along.

8 thoughts on “This Makerspace Wants You to Fail

  1. William Cartwright says:

    dumbest thing I’ve ever read… it’s easy to fail, success is harder. If it was ok to fail, than there’s nothing to learn, except that ok to fail. There’s no motivation to do better, there’s no drive to look for improvements, there’s no initiative for creative or critical thinking. But, what else would I expect from a liberal society.

    1. Michael Black says:

      But lots of people just follow the path because they would get lost otherwise.
      They are afraid of making mistakes because then they’ll get bad marks or their parents will get mad.
      I’ve seen plenty of people puzzled at why something they did wasn’t successful, “but we did it just like in the book”. They template rather than make small gestures that provide feedback for further inroads.
      “Make” does a disservice with talk of “hackers”. It’s used to make people sound cool, when in reality it’s experience based learning. It’s not about technology, but about learning from experience and exploring things because there is a need. Babies and small children are “hackers”, they learn by exploring. They can’t learn through writing or speech since they don’t yet have those skills. The world they explore is the world they know. Only when they get to school does learning separate from experience, and then in most cases learning changes from exploring/backing to abstract book learning. It becomes about things someone else has decided is needed, rather than exploring those drops of paint.
      That world has everything mapped out, follow the path and maybe you’ll be successful. But if you fall off the path, you are lost since you lack the skills to find your own way.
      Not everyone is an explorer or map maker, but society tends to cut that out of people’s lives. But you can’t make a map without making false starts, since the dead ends prove the actual good route.
      Make has always had very detailed instructions on building various things, but in mapping it so carefully, it doesn’t help those who have problems.
      If nothing else, making mistakes teaches how to recover.

    2. Andy_in_Indy says:

      William, it is only dumb if the “ok to fail” is the only motivation. Since it is not alone, it is not dumb.
      Right now, most adult and even school children are taught that success is good, but failure is bad. The article is suggesting that we learn faster when we are tight that success is good, but failure is ok (not good, not best, just ok). This prevents people from looking at a difficult problem and saying “I won’t try this because I might fail” and replaces it with, “I will try this, despite the fact that I might fail”. It does not mean to reward failure, just to remove the extra weight that keeps people from trying.

    3. Lolly Ruby Redpath says:

      Well, its great to see that your mind isn’t limited at all William and you know how to make everything correctly from scratch! Making mistakes that might lead to failure provide answers about what was wrong or what could be done better, which makes the next try a whole lot more informed and so on. If everyone who failed stopped after they “failed” then we wouldn’t have much of todays technology society. So clearly, your evaluation of ‘failure’ is a failure. Nice one. Happy making.

  2. Jolene Gleason says:

    Those in the Minneapolis, MN area should check out Leonardo’s Basement: They have t-shirts that say “Helping kids fail since 1998.” :-)

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Sophia is the managing editor of the Make: blog. When she’s not greasing editorial gears, she likes to run, ride, climb, and lift things, and make lo-tech goods like zines, desserts, and altered clothing. @sophiuhcamille

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