A Focus on Tech Literacy: Barnes and Noble Discusses Their 3rd Annual Mini Maker Faire Weekend

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A Focus on Tech Literacy: Barnes and Noble Discusses Their 3rd Annual Mini Maker Faire Weekend

This weekend, Barnes and Noble stores across the United States will once again host their own Barnes and Noble Mini Maker Faires, showcasing local builders of fascinating and impressive projects that range from traditional crafts to high-tech DIY endeavors. I’ve presented at B&N Faires in each of their first two years, and was really impressed with how well the events translated in their environment. They’re a blast.

We caught up with Barnes and Noble VP of Specialty Kathleen Campisano, the person behind the company’s Mini Maker Faire program, to hear about her motivation to launch it, and to see how the event has developed since it began in 2015.

Make: Give us a quick overview of what B&N has been doing with Maker Faire over the past few years. How did it come about?

Kathleen: It’s a funny story actually. It came about by accident, a wonderful happy accident. I had heard of a Maker Faire through the toy industry, and decided it was something I’d like to experience because we were getting involved in a lot of tech-hobby products at Barnes and Noble. The tech-hobby products were the results of things that were happening with young children in educational toys and games as the science element became more and more prevalent. That was a leading trend.

We have wonderful book fairs and educator nights in our stores and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard as a business leader, from stores and consumers, “Wow, you’re so brilliant in your reading initiative and messaging, and the path to reading is so evident in a Barnes and Noble, but I wonder where the educational toys and games team is going with the path to science.” And so when we explored science and talked to kids, technology was a big piece, and that’s what led the buzz in the toy industry to “Have you heard of a Maker Faire?”

So I went to the San Mateo Maker Faire and I was blown away. I sat in the tent because I was waiting to hear about Arduino, and the speaker that was in the tent before Arduino was [Make: founder] Dale Dougherty. I was just buying my time listening to Dale on my way to hopefully comprehending what Arduino meant, and Dale blew my socks off. I was like “Oh my god” — I had no idea it was a movement of this magnitude. And this is right in the Barnes and Noble wheelhouse because we had for the past five years celebrated hands-on learning activities in our stores, and he was talking about the value of doing and making over just the value of consuming.

I came back to Barnes and Noble and said “I gotta reach out.” And Dale, in all fairness to him, he was like “Barnes and Noble? That’s very kind of you Kathleen but maybe you didn’t get the real message of my talk, because I was saying that making is doing instead of consuming. You’re a retailer, you sell stuff and I’m telling people ‘don’t buy stuff, make stuff.’” I said, “You don’t understand who Barnes and Noble is then, because we’re not just a retailer. We’re educators, we’re a platform for conversation and changing people’s lives. We’re not just in it for the almighty dollar, we’re in it to be kind of the social network of your community. And I don’t mean that in the tech sense, I mean the sharing sense of it.”

The minute I could translate what I believe to be the equity of Barnes and Noble into Maker Media, Dale instantly understood. He said, “I had no idea that was your mission.”

My point to him was — what gives me permission to even address this — is we are all things literacy. We are literacy of the humanities. We are reading. We are language. And it’s technology, it is the toolset of the 21st century. We have an obligation to our consumers, to the community, and to our constituents to be about tech literacy. That’s why we wanted to engage in the Maker Movement.

Make: The first year that you guys hosted was 2015…

Kathleen: I went to San Mateo Maker Faire May 2015. That first year was a power year. Regina and I, God bless her, and the Maker Faire team here at Barnes and Noble, we were putting in 14 hour days to catch up. We drank the Kool-Aid in May and we delivered in November.

But honestly, that’s how impassioned we were. I would tell you we were working 14 hour days, but nobody cared because we believed in everything we were doing. We felt it was that urgent.

What’s made it so easy though, was the natural generosity of the maker community, of [Make: vice president] Sherry Huss and Dale themselves, and [Make: CFO] Todd Sotkiewicz. We couldn’t have been as successful as we are without their generosity and knowledge, contacts, the “Meet the Makers” mechanism, social media support that we collaborate on. All of that — it’s a partnership in the truest sense of the word. The freedom for which they were able to share insight and share talent across the country and even internationally was amazing.

Make: And since then, the partnership with us has gone beyond just the Faires too.

Kathleen: We did a really nice plush Makey, exclusive, we dated him. He’s sitting right here in my office. We’ve done some product development together. And our book team has done some incredible custom publishing, specifically as it relates to the kids books [Electricity for Young Makers and Woodworking for Young Makers -ed.], which was really nice, and again that speaks back to the generosity of the teams. We’ve also done some wonderful opportunities in newsstand with Stephanie Fryling, our vice president of newsstand, she and Todd have partnered not just with placement but with some exclusive opportunities. We’ve done pop-up shops together. We’ve gone the gamut of experiential.

Most recently at Maker Faire New York we took over the programming tent as a sponsor for the Meet the Makers arena. We hosted people from sous vide to Sweet Paul to Curious Jane to Lego to Sphero. Wonder Workshop was a fabulous presenter. They’ve all been great. It’s been a real collaboration on every front.

Make: What’s new with this year’s Barnes and Noble Mini Maker Faires?

Kathleen: In truth, we have fewer stores participating — this is the first year where we asked stores to either opt in or opt out. We have 388 stores that opted in. And in some level I’m glad it wasn’t the whole chain because what that tells me is these people have converted. I’ve carried a torch for two years and now the company is carrying the torch. Makes my job super easy now, because 388 store managers have been evangelized, and that’s way more than we would have got if we had just made it a mandatory event. So now there is a community of makers, they are alive, they are well, they are thriving, and they are making magic in their stores, and they are going to do so again this weekend.  

Make: With tech literacy as your focus over the three years that you have been hosting, do you feel like there’s been traction?

Kathleen: A hundred percent. What gives me the confidence to say that is yesterday we did 21 radio and TV segments, a satellite media tour to get ready for this weekend. On a handful of occasions people said, “Wow it’s the third year already!” — we had repeat interviews that remembered us, remembered that it was successful, and commended us on our commitment to tech literacy, that it wasn’t just a one-hit-wonder year. We’ve come back time and time again to the well and we use the same stat that we used in the very first one because it couldn’t be more prevalent, that the Bureau of Labor says that by the year 2020 there will not be enough people to fill all the tech jobs that will be required. So they are banking on us being committed to tech literacy. They believe in our commitment, and we’ve gained incremental credibility because of the year on year commitment we’ve made to the Maker Movement and certainly the partnership we’ve grounded with Maker Media. It’s been a big part of who we’ve become in regards to our commitment.

Originally we leveraged the relationship and now actually we’re getting credit and recognition for that commitment. I feel like it’s a very important thing, I think it’s something we’ll continue to do in a variety of ways.

We’re very proud to tell you we have a maker matrix that goes from a Pre-K curriculum all the way through high school across things like programming, coding, robotics, ideation, open-ended creating, virtual reality, pentop computing, and 3D printing. There are product recommendations that cross the X and Y axis that fill in this grid very beautifully that actually shows a progression. There’s a pedagogy that we created in partnership with manufacturers and teachers.  We’re the first that I know of of that kind, it’s a proprietary tool we use to help schools convert their computer science labs and their libraries and events spaces into maker spaces.

Make: What have been some of your favorite B&N Mini Maker Faire moments over the last three years?

Kathleen: I have a few actually. One of my most favorite moments was the very first Meet the Makers panel at Union Square. We had Taiwanese 3D printing. We had Virginia entrepreneurs, both Andrea and her husband from ThinkFun. We had Dale himself speaking and it was an honor to introduce him. And we had publishers. What I loved was that we had such a diverse group, and they did not meet in advance, nor was there a real dialog between them before, but they spoke with a commonality and universal intention that made me convinced that the Maker Movement was resonating viscerally with who we are as people. To have that kind of diversity up there, both in cultural and in business acumen, to see that unify the conversation around this central nucleus point of how critical it is to make and create and do and activate your communities, that just resonated and I thought, “Wow, we did something really important here today.” It validated me picking up the torch and carrying it on behalf of the movement.

Another fun example was the first time I saw a drone fly in a Barnes and Noble. I was like “holy moly, we got this.”

And, every single time we put an Ozobot, or a Lego Boost, or Meccano in a kid’s hands and we see them light up as if they are controlling the future. I use those products specifically because that’s the tech, for them it is as cool as a BB-8. It’s Star Wars to them, and that’s the future.  

Then there are quieter moments where they’re engaged in a publisher event, or story time, and then they’re instructed to build and create off that narrative. So the sparking of the imagination off a really compelling story, and what gets created with pipe cleaners and crayons and Lego bricks where there’s no technology at all, I love that balance, that juxtaposition between high-tech awe and quiet discovery of self-creation.

Make: How many of the Barnes and Noble Mini Maker Faires have you personally been to?

Kathleen: They’re always over a weekend so I probably only get to about nine stores each time, because we usually spend quite a bit of time in the flagship stores. But I’ve been to San Mateo, I’ve been to Queens twice, I went to DC, we were signed up to go to Chicago with you, I’ve been to Rochester, I’ve been to Cincinnati, we’ve done Sacramento. It’s been good. I’m a fan!

This year’s Barnes and Noble Mini Maker Faires happen Saturday and Sunday, November 11th and 12th. Find one  near you here.

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Mike Senese

Mike Senese is a content producer with a focus on technology, science, and engineering. He served as Executive Editor of Make: magazine for nearly a decade, and previously was a senior editor at Wired. Mike has also starred in engineering and science shows for Discovery Channel, including Punkin Chunkin, How Stuff Works, and Catch It Keep It.

An avid maker, Mike spends his spare time tinkering with electronics, fixing cars, and attempting to cook the perfect pizza. You might spot him at his local skatepark in the SF Bay Area.

View more articles by Mike Senese


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