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.

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Welcoming the New Oakland Learning Community

The 2013-2014 Oakland Learning Community

The 2013-2014 Oakland Learning Community.

As we enter year two of empirical research, the Agency by Design team is excited to announce that two new Oakland schools have joined our project: Claremont Middle School and North Oakland Community Charter School. Educators from these schools, several new teachers from our existing partner schools (Emerson Elementary School, Oakland International High School, Oakland Technical High School, and Park Day School) and last year’s AbD cohort met for the first time as a group on September 17 at Claremont Middle School. They spent their time together building community, exploring goals for their year with AbD, and framing the themes of the research project. We look forward to another year of knowledge building with our new collaborative learning group, the Oakland Learning Community— a.k.a. the OLC.

We are also excited to welcome two new practice-based groups that have emerged from the OLC. The School Liaison group, made up of four Oakland-based educators, will help make AbD ideas and work visible at each partnering school, design and lead OLC study groups, and provide support for all OLC teachers as they connect AbD and PZ ideas to their own practice. The Learning Experiences Design Team (LEDT) was borne from our teachers’ desire to explore concrete and sustainable ways to integrate AbD project ideas into classroom practice and to consider ways to extend this work beyond the OLC. LEDT members will gather monthly to explore, discuss, design, and pilot test AbD inspired lessons. One intended outcome of the LEDT’s work will be a compilation of lessons and/or units that will be available and accessible on the Project Zero website.

The OLC now represents six schools and includes pre-k to twelfth grade teachers from a wide range of disciplines. The AbD team is thrilled to embark with them on another year full of questions, curiosities, and theory-building!

Reflections on a Moving Project

During a recent retreat, Agency by Design researchers used chart paper and Post-it notes to synthesize their data and formulate new guiding questions.

During a recent retreat, Agency by Design researchers used chart paper and Post-it notes to synthesize their data and formulate new guiding questions.

Several weeks ago, our core research team (myself, Shari, Jess, Edward, and Raquel) and our west coast liaison (Wendy) met for a two-day work retreat. We came with easels, markers, laptops, and a desire to reflect on year one of the Agency by Design project, assess and discuss our evolving research questions, and look forward to the work ahead.

Agency by Design researchers making sense of data and refining ideas.

Agency by Design researchers making sense of data and refining ideas.

Perhaps embodying our theme of “what does it mean to think like a designer?” our team has been working with an ethos of try, test, refine, try again. In other words, this has been an incredibly emergent project. Though our core interest—exploring cognitive and dispositional thinking in the worlds of design and making—has remained, we are continually refining our questions. And so, it seems the right time to share our current understandings about the project—or, in the spirit of how we work here at Project Zero, to make our thinking visible and accessible.

For the past year we have been working closely with colleagues in the Temescal region of Oakland, California. Considering questions such as, “if and how are young people sensitive to design?” and “can a sensitivity to design be cultivated or nurtured?” we have been engaging teachers and students with design/making- and observation-based activities.

In response to a prompt about how an object functions within a system, a 12th grader demonstrates an understanding of the complex interrelation of systems, from interpersonal to homework to organizational.

In response to a prompt about how an object functions within a system, a 12th grader demonstrates an understanding of the complex interrelation of systems, from interpersonal to homework to organizational.

We have also been exploring together the use of activities that encourage awareness of the design dimension of objects and systems, as well as exercises that help students develop the capacity to be agents of change with regard to design—to empower young people to see that they have a right to effect the designed aspect of their world—whether that be the design of a chair or the design of a health care system.

As we enter year two of our research project, we are excited to be expanding our empirical work with several more schools in Oakland, to continue developing ideas and a body of knowledge around design and maker thinking with our colleagues in Temescal, and to push our questioning into the theoretical world of academic and scholarly research. And while our retreat helped reaffirm our initial goal of strengthening students’ cognitive development around design and making, it also allowed us to frame guiding questions for the road ahead:

  1. In the context of design and making experiences, what are the signs of thinking and learning?
  2. What characteristics are typical of people who engage in design and making experiences?
  3. In the context of design and making experiences, what is agency and how can it be fostered?

Please stay tuned.

A Culture (and Economy) of Making and Sharing

Artisan's Asylum, a 40,000 square foot makerspace in Somerville, MA offers its members individual studio spaces, access to a variety of workshops, and a centrally located social space to both share ideas—and hang out.

Artisan’s Asylum, a 40,000 square foot makerspace in Somerville, MA offers its members individual studio spaces, access to a variety of workshops, and a centrally located social space to both share ideas—and hang out.

Taking cues from the burgeoning field of “maker,” the Agency by Design team is investigating work at the cross-roads of the maker movement, tinkering, design thinking, and education. From the DARPA funding of school-based maker spaces to the growing popularity of robotics competitions, educational interest in these spheres has been exploding. But so, too, has interest from the business, non-profit, and even social networking sector. While our research team is learning about the teaching and learning side of maker with the Temescal Learning Community in Oakland, we also are curious about what’s happening on a conceptual level. To do this, we have begun to conduct site visits and talk to folks working in these fields: at fab-labs, makerspaces, schools, businesses, and not-for-profit organizations.

Based on our initial research, there seem to be three concurrent strands driving—or perhaps responding to—the resurgence in the DIY/maker mentality: “I want to do it,” “I can do it,” and “let’s do it together.”

I want to do it

Whether knitting a sweater, tinkering with a broken clock, or hacking a computer program, a maker mentality starts with a desire to do it yourself. Though it may be easier—and perhaps cheaper—to go to the Gap, visit a clockmaker, or hire a recent computer science grad to do the work for you, there’s something satisfying about making. It’s hard to say what’s driving this desire to make, fix, or tinker. (In fact, as AbD develops interview protocols and begins more formal data collection, this will certainly be an area of inquiry for us.) One theory is that it’s a reaction to big box stores, production chains, and corporate influence—a way to feel connected to an object, to see one’s hand in the work, to identify and engage with unique products. Or perhaps it’s an attempt to better understand how things are made—and how they work. After all, we engage on a daily basis with objects and systems that may feel quite distant—systems we may not understand, nor need to understand (um, iPhone?).

I can do it

Of course for many, the want can only be realized if accompanied by a sense of capability. Fortunately, this has been answered in part by 24-7 access to DIY resources, such as how-to sites and online manuals, as well as a growing network of online forums and collaborators. From remixing music to fixing the crack in a plumbing pipe, more and more people (young and old) are engaging their hands in daily life. They are doing it—whatever “it” is—themselves. Wanting to make, and being able to, inspires not only a sense of accomplishment, but a feeling of empowerment. Offering opportunities for people to engage in making, to solve their own problems or answer their own questions, allows for those a-ha moments of “I can do that.”

Let’s do it together

Tech Shop provides its users with a space to access a variety of tools, technology, and other resources.

Tech Shop provides its users with a space to access a variety of tools, technology, and other resources.

Yet an ability to do it yourself can be limited by experience, knowledge, and access to tools and space. Enter the shared economy. Want to build a bookshelf but don’t have the tools or the knowledge? Makerspaces—where you’ll find access to shared tools, introductory classes, even studio space for exploration and storage—are popping up all over the country. And they’re not limited to traditional wood and metal work. Sewing and textile spaces, hackerspaces, fablabs, and even social networking opportunities like hacker/maker meet-ups are all part of this culture of shared maker experiences.

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