Making the future: Why we need to help kids make stuff

Remember when we thought desktop publishing and then blogging were revolutionary (you may be too young!)? Well, now there’s desktop “manufacturing,” and your children may soon be printing out their own shoes – of their own design or someone else’s, depending solely on their own esthetics (pun intended).

Or they could be printing out their dinner. We’re in that phase of 3D printing and personal fabricating where people kind of make fun of it, e.g., in an extremely engaging commentary in the New York Times, “Dinner Is Printed,” by A. J. Jacobs, who decided he would try it out by printing not only dinner for his family but also the utensils and tableware with which they’d consume it. “What boy wouldn’t want to eat a Lamborghini even if it’s made of broccoli?” is a question he asks which probably needs a little more context. I’ll let you read the article for that, but the good news in 3D food printing for parents of picky eaters may be that pretty soon literally anything edible and healthy can be pasta. But the question the piece raised for me (but didn’t answer) is whether food can be 3D-printed and organic at the same time.

Our inner inventor

This grassroots, micro fabrication technology is indeed the next revolution. It blends the maker movement with digital technology. As Jacobs describes it in the Times, “just as the Internet turned us all into couchbound Gutenbergs with the ability to publish to millions of readers with a single click, 3D printers will turn us all into Henry Fords, Ralph Laurens and Daniel Bouluds.” Literally all of us, whether or not we’re children, actually, whether or not we’re in developed countries.

Even though the equipment’s pretty clunky and expensive so far (Jacobs needed dinner prep help from a Cornell student working on his engineering PhD), young people are engaged in personal fabrication all over the world. Just for one example, there are 147 Fab Labs all over the world, including in Afghanistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, India (five of them), Kenya, and Namibia. [Fab Labs ("Fab" short for "fabrication," of course) are play spaces, really – places "to play, to create, to learn, to mentor, to invent. To be a Fab Lab means connecting to a global community of learners, educators, technologists, researchers, makers and innovators," says MIT's Fab Foundation, which grew out of its Center for Bits and Atoms.]

Better (more childlike) than rocket science

Parents and teachers, do you see how central “play” is in all this? This is not rocket science. It’s better and more advanced. It’s childlike. It’s tinkering, messing around with physical and digital tools and media, creative problem-solving that’s both individual and collaborative, trial and error. It comes naturally to children (all of us, really), and I think it’s one reason why they’re so attracted to things like phones and tablets. Of course it needs to be channeled, as authorities are often heard to say, but a better word is facilitated, and the social messing around is part of a progression that researchers call “hanging out, messing around and geeking out” (from the Fab Foundation’s description you can tell that what goes on at the Fab Labs is certainly not all geeking out!).

You don’t have to start with the hard stuff, like printing dinner! This hands-on, meaningful, often social learning can be done at home and school right now. Doesn’t even require a 3D printer. A new book, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager helps educators, students and parents make learning by making infinitely more accessible – whether the case for it needs to be made or you get it and now just need the resources – including if your school wants to organize its own Maker Day, which could be so much more inclusive and whole-school than a science fair, as great as those are.

Martinez and Stager quote Seymour Papert, the great constructivist and constructionist, as saying, “I think it’s an exaggeration, but there’s a lot of truth in saying that when you go to school, the trauma is that you must stop learning and you must now accept being taught.” So with digital media making and printing, we can join our kids in a playful revolution in learning that depends on hands as well as heads.

Related links

  • Video: At about 11:15 into this TED Talk, watch 8-year-old Valentina in Ghana hand-make a network sensor board that worked the first time it was used. The talk’s by Prof. Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits & Atoms. He starts talking about the Fab Labs at about 9:00 and says “a kid needs to measure and modify the world, not just get information about it on a screen. There’s really a fabrication divide bigger than the digital divide.” What’s the biggest barrier? Well, in the “first world,” which thinks it’s the source of aid and change, it’s that thinking itself. We are seeing a “sea change in aid from top-down mega-projects to bottom-up, grassroots, micro-financed investing in the roots, but we still look at technology [and aid and learning] as top-down. The real opportunity,” Gershenfeld says, if more and more of us could see it, “is to harness the inventive power of the world to locally design and produce solutions to local problems.” We can think of classrooms in this way too. The biggest barrier to innovation and learning is “the social engineering” needed for adults and developed countries to see that the source of innovation and learning is – in the world of economic aid – local. In the world of school, too, it’s not top-down and one-to-many; it’s the kid.
  • Search for “fab lab” in Google, and you get almost 5.5 million results – telling, eh? Here‘s a list of Fab Labs worldwide maintained by MIT’s Fab Central.
  • Sylvia Libow Martinez’s blog (she helps run the youth in tech nonprofit Generation YES) with “8 great ways to MAKE back to school 2013 memorable”
  • Gary Stager’s blog
  • You know that Maker Faires are being held all over the world now, right? [The event, dubbed "the greatest show (and tell) on Earth," was created by Make magazine.] Wikipedia says this year’s “flagship faires” were held in San Mateo, Calif., Detroit, and Queens, N.Y. Others happened or will be held in Kerkrade, Netherlands, Irvine, Calif., Rome, Hong Kong and Singapore.

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