Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Making Makers

Years ago in Minnesota Children’s Museum exhibits department, we found ourselves hiring fabricators who had grown up on farms. They could weld, wire, and work with wood. They could take things a part and put them back together in the same, or different, ways. They found that interesting and engaging. They might have also had an MFA or mechanical engineering degree and sometimes they were a furniture maker or had picked up graphic design skills along the way. At heart, however, they were farm kids and makers and that’s what we cared about. 

There was a time, when many people were makers. They did hand work and crafts with their hands. Dads and older brothers fixed their own cars, built go-karts and ham radios, and wired the house. Women knitted, sewed, did needle work, baked bread, pickled and canned. Children built forts, made doll furniture, fashioned small weapons like slingshots, and watched their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors make things.

If our inclination to be makers is activated by our parents, it is to my mother I owe my making predilections. My mother has always loved working with her hands and figuring things out. She sewed, laid sod, hung wallpaper, and laid floors. For 50 years she took woodworking classes and made furniture. She only quit when she figured her woodworking teachers were born after she’d started taking classes. Over the decades she has built a tree house, a half-dozen doll beds, several trellises, a picnic table, 5 chests of drawers for 5 of her grandchildren, and a new fireplace mantle from her own designs, often with my father’s congenial assistance. At 89 years she laid a brick sidewalk and at 90 she allowed my brother and sister help her build a fence. With our mother as an example, it’s not surprising that all seven of us children would be considered makers. And the best of them went off to work on a ranch; he would have made a very fine fabricator.

Becoming Makers Again
Now, it seems, we are hoping to become makers again. My copy of a fresh look at making just arrived. Making Makers is by AnnMarie Thomas, a maker herself as well as an engineer, educator, and parent. An engineering professor at St. Thomas University in St Paul (MN), Thomas brings an important, but often-overlooked, perspective on how to encourage active, creative life-long learners, in this case, makers. Interviewing 39 adults accomplished in many areas about what they were like as children, it is clear they were all makers as children.

The makers she interviewed are writers, technologists, artists, designers, engineers, inventors, professors, and researchers. Leaders, founders, and entrepreneurs, they work in business, academia, community programs, restaurants, arts, and museums. Their creativity and making is expressed as clothing, robots, pipe organs, furniture, and medical devices. Many, if not most, straddle interdisciplinary areas and multiple contexts. All are introduced in the book.

Childhood as a formative time for makers threads throughout the book. The interviewees remember learning from books, magazines, and catalogues as children. They had access to real and varied materials, working tools, and projects of their choosing. They were intent on doing, making, and figuring things out: building, programming, repurposing, or drawing. Few dreams were too big for these children who worked to build a submarine, an airplane from a fallen log, a rocket, or a miniature golf course. We know these makers from photos of them as children, just as we know their childhood creations­: a plane, map, diorama, and home-made Tesla coil from photos, descriptions, and memories. They testify undeniably to the formative and durable nature of childhood in making makers, thinkers, and problem solvers.

Maker Mindset
We are often careful to balance the importance of a finished hands-on product with the value of the process. Less often, however, do we consider the traits and dispositions that support engagement with both process and product. Thomas does this, in fact, focusing on these traits in children. She distills and expands on a set of eight maker-relevant attributes that recur throughout the interviews.

Organizing anecdotes from childhood, Thomas connects the youthful spirit and enthusiasm that powered early maker projects with life-long dispositions and interests. No small coincidence, her list maps onto the non-cognitive skills critical to success in school, work, and life. Equally significant, several qualities–curiosity and playfulness, risk and persistence–are synonymous with children’s joyful, active engagement with their world.

The message is clear: To give children the best chance to be innovative thinkers, playful doers, persistent dreamers, responsible collaborators, make it easy for them to pursue their maker predilections.
Curiosity. All children are curious but they are not all curious about the same things. Particular curiosities and interests fuel children’s desire to know, to try, to question, to find out, and to follow possibilities.
Playfulness. Freely following their interests and ideas, children delight in manipulating sound, numbers, circuits, stories, clothing, and expressing possibilities that they joyfully pursue in many directions.
Risk. Trusted with tools, free to set their own challenges, learning their limits from small injuries and unexpected results, children gain new skills and competencies from near misses, respect danger, and learn safety procedures.
Responsibility. Entrusted to take on a meaningful role in making something bigger happen, helping others accomplish their goals, and accepting consequences build confidence, a sense of accomplishment, and pride.
Persistence. Guided by a belief that they can figure out how to make just about anything, maker children keep trying in the face of setbacks, use multiple approaches to work around challenges, and iterate to get it right.
Resourcefulness. Inspired by bits and bobs, undaunted by scarcity, improvising with what’s available, and developing a fluency with materials and tools children recognize and access the potential in what–and who–is available to move ideas forward.
Generosity. Excited to try something new or hard, children often need and enjoy help from a more, older, or differently experienced maker. Exchange and connection, however, often go in many directions with children proudly sharing their skills, knowledge, tools, plans, and time.
Optimism. Through making children leave a visible mark on the world, their mark. This act of making represents a delight in the possibility of change, a belief in making a difference, and concern for what comes next. 


Raising Makers
Children may be natural-born makers, but the adults in their lives are key partners in encouraging, supporting, extending, and inspiring children to become life-long makers, learners, tinkerers, and thinkers. Thomas provides a brief set of suggestions for adults who want to raise children who are makers. Parents, friends, teachers, neighbors, museum developers, designers, and educators need to be around and supportive, but don’t need to do the work of maker children. Sometimes adults may need to remove an obstacle a child could not; for instance, let Luc keep a 50-gallon oil drum in his bedroom. But, generally, adult support is indirect through:
• Sharing their passions
• Letting children follow their own interests
• Stepping back
• Teaching the importance of safety and responsibility
• Letting children get messy
• Not knowing all the answers
• Making something

Making Makers carries several messages. The one I find strong, clear, and compelling is that the maker experience for children is the stuff of childhood. It is the raw material for building life-long skills and the source of the directory for future makers, doers, thinkers, and problem solvers.

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