Amanda McLaren, director of the Benzonia Public Library, one of our project’s partner “deep dive” sites for ongoing engagement, and I got to record an interview today at Michigan Radio for Stateside with Cynthia Canty. It was really fun to talk about community-based making!
Remember this clip from the White House Science Faire of President Obama helping 8th grader Joey Hudy shoot off a marshmallow cannon he made with the help of the folks at Home Depot? So did reporter and author Rebecca Onion, who mused about what this revived focus in informal science work meant.
As shown in the the table of contents below, her research takes her on remarkable journey.
Chapter 1 takes her to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum between the World Wars, with descriptions of children (mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly male) learning classification and tree identification but ultimately leading to a group of boys running the museum’s wireless system.
Chapter 2 studies the rise of chemistry kits and the ways in which the “naughty” behaviors of those who used them (again, mostly white, middle class, and male) began to be seen not as mischievous but as scientific. Chapter 3 looks at the movement to identify and showcase scientific talent (again, with males as key figures and female budding scientists as those guided by males, dating male contestants, or visiting the Hope Diamond), with a desire to find prospective scientists who also met society’s ideals for sociability. Oh, and most of them, just to be clear, were mostly male, mostly white, and mostly middle-class. See the pattern?
Chapter 4 delves into the role of science fiction, particularly the worlds created by Robert Heinlein. (Teachers and librarians, beware: he’s got harsh words for both of these traditionally female-dominated professions, though some of his harshest words were reserved for his editor — and Newbery Honor awardee Alice Dalgleish).
Chapter 5 looks at the early years of San Francisco’s Exploratorium and wonders aloud if, just as with the male chemistry kits, the movement to learn science through exploration is more about play than about scientific acquisition. Thankfully, gender plays less of a role here, but the pedigree of the Exploratorium’s founder makes for a good jeopardy question, as it is none other than the brother of Robert Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project.
I’ve been recommending this book to everyone I see because it raises some crucial and critical questions about the role of informal, out-of-school science in the development of the scientific workforce and in the development of science skills. Here are some of the many questions that my team and I found ourselves asking as we read:
For decades, there has been an intent to develop more scientists through interventions like museums, science competitions, and even science fiction. Has it worked? To what extent?
What is the difference between “cool” science (think of the hair-raising Van de Graff generators or the Diet Coke and Mentos explosions at a Maker Faire) and the day-to-day work of scientists? Does interest in “cool” lead to professional engagement? What is the missing piece there?
What pieces need to be in place in order for children to not only experience science but develop meaningful/rigorous scientific understanding?
Over and over again, there are events in American history that are that generation’s Sputnik. (Think, for example of President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union speech, in which he referred to the need for more research and development by calling it “our generation’s Sputnik moment“) Do we succeed in rising to the challenge today? Historically?
Today’s maker movement has been accused of catering to an audience that is primarily male, well-educated, and middle class, the same population Ms. Onion refers to repeatedly in movements of the past. How do we get past this as the primary audience, 100 years later?
Do we have the right players working with young people to develop scientific thinking, understanding, processing, and reasoning? How would we know that we were successful in this way?
One of the implicit themes of Ms. Onion’s book is that perhaps what we’ve labeled as informal or out-of-school science is actually play. Yet politicians and decision-makers are often far more committed to spending money on science/STEM/STEAM/STREAM/STREAMS/HAMSTER (!!) than on play. Should we try to change the narrative? What are the risks/benefits of doing so?
All in all, this has been one of the STEM/maker books I’ve read lately that has challenged my thinking the most. I highly recommend it. You can get started reading it below, as much of the first chapter is available via Google Books.
Last month, I wrote about some of the things we had learned traveling the state with maker professional development.
This month, I’d like to focus in on one finding in particular: the relative lack of awareness of Make magazine and the ensuing implications in rural and underserved communities.
Partway through the summer, we changed our summative activity that the end of the three-day workshop. Our colleague Amber created a blank parody cover of Make magazine called Made, and we invited participants to imagine that Made was going to create a special issue focused solely on their makerspace. They were asked to provide the cover headlines that would relate to the vision they had worked on during the workshop.
And that’s where things got interesting. Overwhelmingly, only one or two attendees had ever heard of Make magazine.
So what are the implications of this? What does making look like when the flagship publication isn’t a reference point?
Our observations are that without that supposedly canonical reference point, making in libraries and K-12 schools (our two primary audiences) tends to be:
the STEM tinkering model of commercial kits, not raw materials put to work to create a personal vision
more focus on soft skills
less focus on drones and more integration of stereotypically female activities like sewing, quilting, and knitting
more focused on low-cost activities that can scale up for groups rather than individual activities that cost $50+
less focused on Arduino and professional-grade coding
Out of school STEM program was a topic that we often came across and talked about on our summer road trip. If you are looking for more information on this topic, we would like to share a resource that we found useful:
Thanks to funding from IMLS, I had the opportunity to travel all over Michigan over the course of the last summer. I was able to take advantage of great opportunities to meet new people doing interesting work in unexpected locales. The things that I learned the most about had to do with professional practice, particularly in libraries and similar community spaces, as well as the way people connect with creating things:
People from all backgrounds and walks of life can get something out of making even simple objects with their own hands, without a plan.
Types of traditional fabrication, such as soldering-torch jewelry making, decorative woodworking, or furniture reupholstering, are still maintained in certain spaces and appear to present an avenue for interesting economic development.
Developing partnerships between local organizations that may not have worked together in the past is one of the most powerful ways to sustain new programs such as out-of-school STEM programs (National Research Council 2015).
Continuing on the theme of out-of-school programs, the variety of peripheral STEM learning opportunities was very inspiring to me, from LEGO/FIRST robotics clubs to partnerships with local community colleges.
The relationship between local, regional, state, and federal STEM initiatives isn’t always straightforward, but investing time in understanding this network can give life to programs that would otherwise be prohibitively challenging to implement.
The natural beauty of northern Michigan is not overstated.
Going forward, I’m curious to explore how people turn a hobby or casual interest into a way to give themselves a little extra support, and how young people can rediscover something elemental about what it is make something with their own hands, from scratch. Look forward to some more reflection on our summer of co-learning next month!
National Research Council. Identifying and Supporting Productive STEM Programs in Out-of-School Settings. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2015. doi:10.17226/21740.
This summer has made me fall in love with Design Thinking all over again. Taking a fifteen minute introduction to Design Thinking and making it an entire three hour piece in the workshop helped me gain a much deeper understanding of the process. Over the course of the internship, I tried different things. Some worked well and some didn’t. Here are the most important lessons I have learned:
Problem definition is hard, really hard
In the time-frame of the session, which is typically two to three hours, we start with a problem and end with a prototype. The sessions went without a hitch when we threw a very specific and simple challenge at the participants, like “Design a better chair”. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of a particular set of participants (thank you West Iron and Benzonia), I tried something different. I asked them to come up with a challenge; it could be anything that annoyed them in real life. And the first thing I received was a room full of blank stares. This is in no way the participants’ fault. Most people would draw a blank at something this open-ended.
I realized, as a designer, I had trained myself to observe and keep a mental note of design flaws in everyday objects; or, perhaps, I became a designer because I was already doing it. Either way, it took me a while to understand that not everyone is like me; that we humans have a tendency to get used to problems or come up with workarounds so that it no longer bothers us. And this was my first lesson. No matter how well we train people to solve problems, they cannot put that training to use until they have learned to see the problems that surround them. Acknowledging the existence of a problem and the urge to improve something must come before any problem solving technique. And this realization surprised me even more because it is not referenced in the design thinking literature. I realized that learning to observe is a necessary prerequisite for being able to conceptualize an improvement.
Seeing is believing
We had a lot of fun during our product pitches at the end of a Design Thinking workshop. Some hilarious, some thought provoking, some absolutely mind-blowing and all of them radically new and different in some way or the other. Most participants were surprised at the amount of creativity that comes out of them. If I were to simply tell them that they are all creative and that design thinking would work, I would not have had as much success in getting them to try it in real life. However, I believe there is more work to be done. Most participants, I feel, see design thinking as a fun activity that they can implement as a program in a library or incorporate it in the school curriculum. It has been hard for me to get them to apply the process in their own lives, as a technique to solve their own problems or as a change in mindset. Upon reflection, I find that Design Thinking had the most profound effect on me when I saw that I was changing someone’s life. A short workshop only skims the surface of design thinking. A true mindset change can happen only when we can empathize with the design’s intended beneficiary and see the difference we have made in their lives.
Gamifying the process: missing pieces
Our team came up with a fun, simple, and engaging activity to introduce participants to design challenges and certain aspects of design thinking: a game that … . We made several iterations over the summer, introducing the game in different ways and with different rules. We loved how the room buzzed with exciting ideas when we did the activity in groups. Words and pictures elicited different interpretations. And to be honest, the most fun bit was the wildcard design constraint that they were given halfway through the challenge. It spiced things up, even if it sometimes annoyed the participants. But there had never been a team that did not rise up to the challenge. This proved to be a great warm up challenge, getting the creative juices flowing in a quick period of time. But we do realize that the game heavily focused on the brainstorming and the prototyping steps of Design Thinking. These steps are fun in real life, too, so they are easy to replicate in a game. But what about the more serious steps, like user research and making design choices? We see that the real challenge is incorporating the other stages of Design Thinking without making the game too long or boring. A solution to this would be a real game changer because it would help educators and librarians develop student/patron mental muscles over time in a safe and joyful setting.
In conclusion, I have had the most rewarding summer. Personally, I managed to step out of my corporate comfort zone and meet some amazing and very real people. Now, I have a design thinking problem of my own: make design thinking second nature to everyone.
Please join me for a free Booklist webinar, sponsored by Cherry Lake Publishing, on Thursday, October 20, 2016, at 2pm Eastern / 1pm Central.
Here’s what I’ll be talking about:
Primary-aged children are natural makers. They couple their imaginations with the physical and digital worlds as they poke, prod, push, pull, pixelate, and produce. Whether using digital tools, circuits, robots, or recyclables, many of the core questions are the same: What is our role as facilitators of maker mindset and purposeful exploration? How do we set up spaces that welcome creative interactions with materials and peers? In celebration of the launch of the Makers as Innovators Junior series for K-2 students, Cherry Lake Publishing invites you to engage with these concepts and build or refine your vision for playful thinking. Presented by series editor and University of Michigan School of Information faculty member Kristin Fontichiaro and moderated by Books for Youth editor Dan Kraus.
You can register here. If you cannot watch the webinar live, an archive link will be sent to you a few days after the live event.
Thanks to funding from IMLS, I spent much of the summer on the road, working with librarians, educators, and community members to envision and think about community-responsive making in rural and underserved communities. Here are some things I learned (or re-learned) from stepping outside the current maker narratives:
Balancing traditional maker activities (e.g., log furniture) with new technologies (e.g., CNC routing) remains a challenge, in part due to financial constraints.
Future Farmers of America and 4-H remain highly influential avenues to making and hands-on learning in communities.
One powerful, persuasive personality can mobilize many others.
3-D printing, seen as a critical tool in many urban and suburban maker narratives, simply isn’t financially viable in many rural libraries, though they might be found in local high schools.
The maker movement in libraries is codifying around youth and STEM primarily, with a big emphasis on playing with pre-made items (e.g., Snap Circuits, LEGO, K’Nex).
Despite the current youth and making focus, we got a lot of questions this summer about making and senior citizens, something we’re really interested in, too!
Underwater remote operated vehicles showed up as an in-class or extracurricular activity in three of our sites. Robotics was even more popular (in part because Michigan’s governor has actively supported and incentivized the incubation of FIRST Robotics programs).
Incubator kitchens are specially licensed facilities to help nascent food businesses get started. That this is a state-licensed activity tells me there is more support for non-tech-based small businesses than we previously anticipated.
Multiple communities pointed to farmer’s markets as a hub for creative handmade products.
What did you learn this summer? I’ll be back next month with more learnings.
Frankenmuth, a place so beautiful that we were glad it rained one of the days, making us feel better about not missing out on anything. From Bronner’s to the newly opened farmer’s market, there was so much to see and do in this place. We were right in saving it for the grand finale it turned out to be.
On day one, we covered the big picture about making and wrapped the day up with wonderful Hanoch Piven style creations about makerspaces. Day two started with rain on the outside, but it was all sunny in our workshop. Taking inspiration from the cafeteria chairs( which were never meant for a day long session) we designed the chairs of our dreams. We walked through the design thinking process and created prototypes with legos. A fun activity where the creativity and resourcefulness of the participants shined through. We spent the afternoon exploring some hands on activities, tools and the STEM exploration bus from Delta College. We also had the Makerfest at the Frankenmuth Public Library that evening. Thanks to Mary, Pam and Cora(of the Library) and Cindy (who had participated in the workshop at Alpena), we had the library filled to the brim with activities and had the Delta college bus outside(which was a hit among the children). Was very exciting to see the school Lego team and their creations as well as the hack/takeapart station hosted by a member of the community.
On the third day, we visited the classrooms of elementary school teachers Julie Leach and Tosha Miller (of the TwoSassyApples fame). It was interesting to see the amount of exposure their students were getting and the kind activities being done in the space. They were also kind enough to have a surprise giveaway for one of our participants! After that, we went to the classrooms of the High school teachers Mr. VanArsdale and Mr. Culver. They showed us some great examples of 3D modelling coupled with 3D printing to optimize the casings of the motors on their underwater ROVs. They also had made attachments for a microscope that allowed a student with disability to do her lab work independently. In Mr. VanArsdale classroom, it was reassuring to see the students’ designs and engineering drawings being given the center stage, showing us that the true strength of 3D printing or other fabrication tools lies in 3D modelling skills. A special thanks to both their students who took out the time to come show us their work and the 3D printer they had modified and built from scratch. We ended the day by sharing some strategies on assessment and revisiting the mission from day one.
Working with Pam, Cora and Mary was a truly wonderful experience, and that basement of amazing stuff(not calling it junk) keeps us awake at night with envy. The commitment towards the community you have shows us the true charm of Frankenmuth lies in its people.
The one day workshop on Making as learning at the Butman Fish Library, Saginaw was made possible by a chance that Rhonda Butler, the head of the Wicke’s Branch at Saginaw, took while applying to host it. And we are so grateful she did. This was a high energy workshop from start to finish.
We introduced the participants to some high level definitions of making. Then we turned our focus to their community and prompted them to think about the big picture; what was their vision for a makerspace and what it would look like. After that, we shared some ideas on how to assess the work being done in makerspaces without crushing any of the open endedness or the creativity. This brought us to design challenges and design thinking.
With a short introduction to the process of Design Thinking, the group jumped into the challenge with gusto. It was fascinating to see them work under such time constraints(as this was a short workshop) and come up with refined and amazing ideas. The product pitches themselves were a class apart. Hilarious and thought-provoking at the same time, the pitches left us in splits and also wishing the products existed.
We then explored some hands on activities and tools that we had brought along. We had a great conversation about the experiences of the day and how to move forward, bringing this wonderful day to an end. Keeping the best till the end, a very special thanks to the staff of Saginaw Public Libraries for being such lovely hosts and making the workshop so lively.
We are happy to be at the work home of UMSI alum Rhonda Farrell-Butler today — Butman Fish Library, a branch of the Public Libraries of Saginaw!