Build, Tinker, Hack

Success! Kicking your feet off the ground is the best way to prove a cardboard chair can hold your weight.

Success! Kicking your feet off the ground is the best way to prove a cardboard chair can hold your weight.

On Wednesday, April 9  Agency by Design project manager Jennifer Ryan and I teamed up to host back to back workshops at the 2014 Learning Environments for Tomorrow (LEFT) conference. Co-hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Harvard Graduate School of Education, the LEFT conference brought together educators, architects, and school administrators to consider how best to design learning environments to meet the needs of today’s (and tomorrow’s) students.

The workshops Jen and I led were entitled “Build, Tinker, Hack: Designing Learning Environments for Maker Learning Experiences.” Our workshops were driven by two guiding questions: (1) What do making-centered learning experiences look like? and (2) what are some design considerations for learning environments that may support this kind of learning?

To address these questions, we first engaged participants in a Project Zero thinking routine that had them consider the “parts” of our workshop space, as well as the “purposes” of each of those parts. After developing a baseline sensitivity to the design of our workshop space, participants were then given the following design challenge: Using only the materials provided (cardboard, box cutters, roofing nails, and document fasteners), design and build a functional chair that will hold your weight. Once set to this task, participants had forty minutes to build their chairs. Immediately, a flurry of activity took place. 

Following their chair building and tinkering time, participants discussed their new insights and puzzles concerning the design of learning environments that best suit making-centered learning experiences.

Below are some images from our LEFT workshops. Be sure to check out our Instagram page for even more fun picts from this exciting event!

 

Stacks of cardboard, an assortment of box cutters, and dozens of document fasteners awaited our participants at the LEFT conference.

Stacks of cardboard, an assortment of box cutters, and dozens of document fasteners awaited our participants at the LEFT conference.

Before beginning their chair-making activity, participants used a Project Zero thinking routine to map out the "parts" and "purposes" of our workshop space.

Before beginning their chair-making activity, participants used a Project Zero thinking routine to map out the “parts” and “purposes” of our workshop space.

Participants used text and images to map out the "parts" and "purposes" of our workshop space... and developed an increased sensitivity to the design of learning environments in the process!

Participants used text and images to map out the “parts” and “purposes” of our workshop space… and developed an increased sensitivity to the design of learning environments in the process!

A simple task, an exciting challenge...

A simple task, an exciting challenge…

 

An assortment of boxcutters were our participants' tools of choice.

An assortment of box cutters were our participants’ tools of choice.

Using only cardboard, boxcutters, roofing nails, and document fasteners, participants got to work making their chairs. Triangles were a popular structural strategy.

Using only cardboard, box cutters, roofing nails, and document fasteners, participants got to work making their chairs. Triangles were a popular structural strategy.

This was no ordinary conference session—participants were both up on their feet—and down on the floor—as they got to work on their cardboard chairs.

This was no ordinary conference session—participants were both up on their feet—and down on the floor—as they got to work on their cardboard chairs.

A comfortable cardboard seat—with an accompanying ottoman.

A comfortable cardboard seat—with an accompanying ottoman.

Another successful seat.

Another successful seat.

Let there be no doubt, this cardboard construction can hold his weight!

Let there be no doubt, this cardboard construction can hold his weight!

A fashionable triangular chair. It's more comfortable—and more sturdy—than it looks!

A fashionable triangular chair. It’s more comfortable—and more sturdy—than it looks!

Chair, schmair. This participant group made a cardboard bench and accompanying footrest!

Chair, schmair. This participant group made a cardboard bench and accompanying footrest!

Special thanks to David Stephen, Daniel Wilson, Madeline Tarabelli and the Programs in Professional Education staff, Volk Packaging Corporation (for the generous cardboard donation), and all of the educators, architects, consultants, and administrators we worked with for making these workshop sessions a success. We had great fun—and learned a lot!

Making in Memphis

A workshop participant maps out the parts, purposes, and relationships in a light switch.

A workshop participant maps out the parts, purposes, and relationships in a light switch.

By Jenny Ernst, Guest Author

As a member of the Oakland Learning Community (OLC), my work with the Agency by Design (AbD) research project has helped me understand that developing a sensitivity to the design of objects is an elemental part of maker education. Co-facilitating an AbD workshop on this theme at a national conference afforded me some of the very best in professional development. A surprising twist to one of our thinking routines made the experience even richer.

Earlier this month my colleague Brooke Toczylowski (Oakland International High School) and I (Park Day School) were welcomed as presenters at the most recent Project Zero Perspectives conference entitled How and Where Does Learning Thrive? The conference was hosted by Presbyterian Day School (PDS) in Memphis, TN. Over the years 85% of PDS teachers have attended the annual Project Zero Classroom summer institute in Cambridge, MA. As a result, every hallway bulletin board displayed student thinking routines and the staff (and even the students) spoke fluent PZ-terminology.

As classroom teachers and OLC members Brooke and I were asked to co-present with our Project Zero research partners Jen Ryan and Edward Clapp. Since Brooke and I have piloted many of the AbD workshop activities in our classrooms/schools, we offered a “teacher perspective” on AbD’s work. With reverence, we also shared the projects that our colleagues in the OLC have been working on when we were asked about real-world applications of AbD’s approach to teaching and learning.

While Brooke and Edward presented a systems-based workshop session, Jen and I presented a session entitled Developing a Sensitivity to Design: How Making and Design Experiences Can Activate Student Agency. For me personally, I wanted the teachers, learning specialists, and administrators in our workshop sessions to understand that as educators, we too develop a natural sensitivity to design alongside our students as we notice the parts, purposes, and relationships within objects and systems. When we are challenged to design our learning environments to include more maker/design thinking activities, we likewise develop the dispositional characteristics associated with AbD’s emergent concept of maker empowerment.

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Maker Empowerment Revisited

Developing a sensitivity to the designed dimension of one's world is an important part of maker empowerment. During a special AbD workshop on learning-by-doing, students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education increased their sensitivity to the design of electronics and other household appliances by taking them apart to see how they worked.

Developing a sensitivity to the designed dimension of one’s world is an important part of maker empowerment. During a special AbD workshop on learning-by-doing, students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education increased their sensitivity to the design of electronics and other household appliances by taking them apart to see how they worked.

A few months ago, we wrote a blog post about the concept of maker empowerment that provoked a wonderful online discussion. Since then we’ve continued to think about this concept. Our thinking has been greatly informed by the many insightful comments on the post, and also by some prior research at Harvard Project Zero. So we’re at it again. In a moment we share a slightly revised version of the definition, along with some notes about what’s new in it and what’s not. But first, a couple of general remarks…

The big idea behind the concept of maker empowerment is to describe a kind of disposition—a way of being in the world—that is characterized by seeing the designed world as malleable, and understanding oneself as a person of resourcefulness who can muster the wherewithal to change things through making.

The concept of maker empowerment is meant to be somewhat broader than the label of maker. It certainly includes maker-types—i.e., hackers, DIYers, and hobbyists—but it also includes people who may not define themselves as wholly as makers, yet take the initiative to engage in maker activities from time to time. For example, it includes the person who doesn’t think of herself as a maker, but after she purchases a new laptop computer, she envisions the perfect laptop cover and endeavors to design and make it rather than purchasing it from a store. It also includes the teens who may not think of themselves as DIYers, but frequent thrift stores in order to find garments they can hack and combine to make stylish new looks, and the girl who eagerly scours the internet for instructions on how to make a potato launcher rather than purchasing a ready-made one online.

From the standpoint of education, the notion of empowerment is behind much of what we teach. We teach art, or history, or auto mechanics not solely to train practitioners of these crafts, but to help all students develop the capacity to engage with world through the lenses of these disciplines—even if not all students will become artists or historians or auto mechanics. The concept of maker empowerment aims for this same breadth.

Maker Empowerment Version 2

Thanks to the input of our blog commentators, here’s another take on a definition. For the sake of comparison, we give the earlier version first.

Maker Empowerment (v1): A heightened sensitivity to the made dimension of things and systems, along with a nudge toward tinkering with them and an increased capacity to do so. 

Maker Empowerment (v2): A sensitivity to the designed dimension of objects and systems, along with the inclination and capacity to shape one’s world through building, tinkering, re/designing, or hacking.

One readily apparent difference is that in version two the word nudge is gone. The word was interpreted as implying the necessity of a third party, an external agent, to prod or push people into maker activity. We definitely don’t want to imply that! In fact, it’s contrary to one of the main purposes of the Agency by Design project, which is to understand how maker activities can develop students’ sense of agency or self-efficacy.  So nudge has been nudged out.

Though we’ve removed nudge, we’ve retained the word empowerment. There has been some very thoughtful commentary on our blog about this term and its social-movement connotations of the powerful giving power to the unempowered and thus retaining the status quo hierarchies of privilege and access. We agree that this connotation isn’t exactly what we’re looking for. Our hope is to reclaim a slightly different connotation in which empower refers to the driving force that comes from within—a personal sense of agency. This seems to be what people have in mind when they talk about how the maker movement can empower people to shift from being passive consumers of their world to being active producers or collaborators.

We’ve also retained the three-part construction of the concept that emphasizes sensitivity, inclination (previously the doomed “nudge”), and capacity. We’ve even made this dimension more explicit. Herein is the connection to the Project Zero research I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Project Zero has a long line of inquiry around “thinking dispositions” that aims to explain how habits of mind develop. This work is relevant to our definitional attempts here because maker empowerment is a dispositional concept. That is, rather than simply naming a set of technical skills, it aims to describe a mindset, along with a habitual way of engaging with the world.

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Making Circuits Work: A Learning Journey

With a little help from a colleague, Agency by Design researcher Jessica Ross was empowered to use some basic electronic materials to power an LED light and a small speaker with a 9V battery.

With a little help from a colleague, Agency by Design researcher Jessica Ross was empowered to use some basic electronic materials to power an LED light and a small speaker with a 9V battery.

It is hard to travel long among young makers without stumbling across circuits. TinyCircuits, Snap Circuits, Squishy Circuits, breadboards, soldered circuits…  almost everywhere you look, circuitry design is happening in classrooms, at home, and in after school settings.

Students at Park Day School building props for student written plays with LED circuits.

Students at Park Day School building props for student written plays with LED circuits.

I recently had the privilege of talking to a variety of young circuit designers eager to talk about what they were working on. However, since I didn’t know what a potentiometer does and I had never soldered in my life, I began to feel that my questions were becoming tedious after an eleven year-old had patiently explained to me how electrons move through wires for the third time. AS a result, I decided that it might be time to bridge the gap (if ever so slightly) in my circuit building knowledge, so I decided to learn by doing.

Developing a Sensitivity to Design by Looking… and Doing

The Agency by Design research team has thought a lot about the ways to encourage a sensitivity to design through classroom practices. We have engaged learners both young and old in exercises that require careful looking, considering the parts, the purposes, and noticing the complexities of objects or systems.

A student designed Medusa headdress for an upcoming school play—complete with flashing LED snake eyes!

A student designed Medusa headdress for an upcoming school play—complete with flashing LED snake eyes!

Simple objects, like a light for a bike helmet for example, have a variety of parts, a specific purpose, and design elements that were employed to meet the needs of a variety of users. We can observe many of these elements through a process of careful looking, but what about actually understanding something like the circuit design involved in making an LED light flash when connected to a battery—the basic function of a bike helmet light before the carefully designed outer shell is added?

I can promise you this; it takes a bit more time than ordering the bike helmet light online. For me, it took an entire weekend.

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A TEDx Talk about the Maker Mind: Why Having a Sensitivity to Design Matters

Agency by Design project manager Jen Ryan discusses the maker mind at TEDxDirigo. Photo by Michael Eric Berube.

Agency by Design project manager Jen Ryan discusses the “maker mind” at TEDxDirigo. Photo by Michael Eric Berube.

Earlier this year I was asked to participate at TEDxDirigo, a statewide TED Talk formatted platform for residents of the state of Maine,* to celebrate and share innovative and creative thought.

Embracing the AbD (and maker) principle of testing ideas in progress, I decided to focus my talk on the team’s current (at the time) concept of Maker Empowerment while highlighting one particular question at the heart of our research: why should we notice the designed dimension of our world?

Though a bit anxiety inducing (talking to 300 people is a lot different than workshopping with 30!), the experience was both illuminating and provocative. The talk resonated with many in the audience, including university STEM educators, parents, and business leaders. Perhaps just as important, it helped me clarify some of the guiding questions behind our research.

Many thanks to Adam Burk and the Treehouse Institute for producing the event, and in particular to Janice O’Rourke for her TEDx guidance.

*Though based in Cambridge, I actually live in Portland, ME.

From Maker Space to Maker Campus

Maker Campus Plans, like this one designed with teachers and students at Oakland International High School, record a school's short- and long-term goals for making their campuses more maker-friendly.

Maker Campus Plans, like this one designed with teachers and students at Oakland International High School, record a school’s short- and long-term goals for making their campuses more maker-friendly.

By David Stephen, Guest Author 

How can schools re-envision their classrooms and campuses to make them more maker-oriented and, in the process, help students and faculty to develop the tools they need to better understand and effect change upon their physical environments?

This is the essential question that we have been asking as we engage a number of Agency by Design’s Oakland Learning Community school sites in the process of redesigning their school campuses using a simple design thinking process for master planning. The beauty of this effort has been the opportunities it affords both students and teachers to interact with, and actively recreate, the learning spaces that they occupy everyday. This is an iterative process that has no particular end state, but that serves to connect people to their environments, foster Maker Empowerment, and positively transform their school campuses in real and ongoing ways.

Various members of the Park Day School's community meet with architect David Stephen to discuss what a space for making may look like on their school's campus.

Members of the Park Day School’s community gather to discuss what a space for making may look like on the school’s campus.

As both an educator and a school architect with a longtime passion for inquiry- and project-based approaches to teaching and learning, I see the design thinking process as providing a perfect vehicle for this exploration. Through a series of workshops with selected groups of teachers and students, during the past nine months each participating AbD school has been working to clarify its learning goals and spatial needs as connected to maker-thinking and doing. This includes generating a list of Guiding Principles and Priorities for Design, identifying specific campus redesign and building projects that support these priorities, and engaging teachers and students in carrying them out.

Signage at Claremont Middle School announces the school's Design Thinking and Making Lab.

Signage at Claremont Middle School announces the school’s Design Thinking and Making Lab.

To help guide this endeavor, each school is creating a “Maker Campus Master Plan” that outlines their short and long-term implementation goals. The process appears to be greatly energizing for those involved, as well as increasing awareness of how spatial adjacencies, design elements, and furniture choices can dramatically influence the ways in which people use space, interact, and collaborate. Although varied, there is considerable overlap in the areas of focus that are being addressed within each school’s master plan. They include:

  1. Articulating a safe, friendly, and clear entry sequence that strives to orient all building inhabitants and visitors to the school and campus as they enter.
  2. Creating consistent and clear branding and messaging platforms that communicate the values, learning goals, and priorities of the school.
  3. Fostering easy navigation and wayfinding to assist students, teachers, and visitors in making their way through the school building and campus.
  4. Showcasing visible learning and engagement through vistas into classroom and meeting spaces, as well as public art projects and installations.
  5. Establishing multiple venues for ongoing display, exhibition, and celebration of student work.
  6. Defining classroom and neighborhood zones that encourage students and teachers to build a sense of ownership, identity, and connection across disciplines.
  7. Designing and developing flexible classroom, gathering, and collaboration spaces that support large group, small group, independent, and project-based work.
  8. Provisioning flexible furniture and equipment that allow students and teachers to quickly transform their learning spaces and empower them as makers and doers.
  9. Developing outdoor learning spaces that promote maker activities and extend learning beyond the classroom.
  10. Initiating the development of maker spaces that support a range of design thinking and maker activities. Continue reading

Maker Empowerment in the Making!

Members of the Oakland Learning Community identified a variety of objects and images to represent their understandings of "maker" and "empowerment."

Members of the Oakland Learning Community identified a variety of objects and images to represent their understandings of “making” and “empowerment.”

By Ilya Pratt, Guest Author

Last month the Agency by Design research team asked the Oakland Learning Community to apply both our personal and educators’ perspectives to exploring the concept of maker empowerment. They requested that we each bring two objects to our October workshop session: one that represented empowerment, and another that represented making. Through a series of sharing and connection activities, we came to understand our various perspectives on empowerment, making, and the concept of maker empowerment. Some comments from our group included the following:

“I brought a book that has knowledge and therefore empowerment. It’s about who I work with and knowledge for when [I am] working with those students.”

I also brought a book. Books give you the feeling that you are related to other people, are like other people—and finding this commonality is confidence-building and therefore empowering.

“[I brought a] hammer. This to me is about power. It’s not exactly about making an object or a thing like furniture. I actually relate it to something like making your to-do list go away. Or hanging a piece of art—I reach for it. It’s more about empowerment than making. It is a very strong tool that is an extension of the hand.”

Members of the Oakland Learning Community develop a "Maker Empowerment" installation during a recent Agency by Design workshop at Oakland International High School.

Members of the Oakland Learning Community develop a “Maker Empowerment” installation during a recent Agency by Design workshop at Oakland International High School.

In the moment our dialogue was very personal and reflective. Now it is actually quite remarkable to look back and consider how easily the concept of maker empowerment became a means to find commonality in the values we have as educators—there were clear themes that we considered important to student success: confidence; supportive environments; a desire to create, be inspired, and space to use one’s imagination; hands-on learning; hard work; a sense of purpose; knowledge as power, and; collaboration.

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