Hacking Simple Systems: The Tale of an Incomplete Soccer Uniform

All dressed up but not quite ready to go. Tatum's daughter showed up for the first day of soccer practice wearing a party dress and sparkly flats. What to do?

All dressed up but not quite ready to go: Tatum’s daughter showed up for the first day of soccer practice wearing a party dress and sparkly flats. What to do?

By Tatum Omari, Guest Author

When I used to think about systems redesign, and what would inspire a person to redesign something in the first place, images of super smarties standing next to state of the art tech contraptions immediately came to mind. Now that I’ve had a chance to work with Agency by Design as a member of the Oakland Learning Community, I realize that systems are everywhere. There are high tech systems, such as the parts and pieces that go together to make your car start in the morning, and low tech systems, say the parts and pieces that go together to transform your child into a soccer player. This blog post explores the latter: systems redesign as not just a means to innovate but as a means to make due, be resourceful, and get by as a mom.

The context for this redesign is my daughter’s first official day of practice with the new soccer team she joined with friends at school. The first official day of anything is always a little discombobulating for me as a mom. I tend to be a “fly by the seat of my pants” kinda lady and that doesn’t always work in terms of extra-curricular activities going off without a hitch. In these situations I often anticipate something will go wrong. This time, however, was different. It just so happened that my daughter’s father was making a surprise visit to the Bay Area and, of course, totally wanted to go to her first ever soccer practice.

I knew that my daughter’s father would be expecting some sort of underprepared-mom shenanigans to take place. And so I determined that getting my daughter to soccer practice “without a hitch” was now mandatory. I was on a mission to have a shenanigan-free first day of soccer practice.

“Ok,” I thought, “I can do this.” We successfully dug a pair of shin guards out of a sports gear box and whilst digging through that box another box tipped over on me. That box just happened to have our ski gear in it and—voila—ski socks look almost identical to soccer socks! We didn’t have cleats yet, but the soccer team people said not to worry. Regular tennis shoes would work on the indoor field.

With tennis shoes, shin guards, and ski socks in hand, we were ready for practice—and we still had two more hours until we had to be there! I was feeling so proud of myself as a mom that I decided to take my planning to the next level. My daughter had a birthday party to go to after soccer practice so I formulated the bright idea of having her wear her party gear to practice and having her change into her soccer gear once we got there. Fast forward 10 minutes later and my daughter was dressed and ready to go. I felt so proud. First day of soccer practice and we had got this on lock.

When it was time to leave I strutted out of the house towards the car feeling like Super Mom. Super Prepared Mom! This feeling lasted until we were about a block away from the soccer field. Then… it happened. I heard a gasp from the back seat. I glanced back and saw a panic stricken look on my daughter’s little face. Slowly she began to speak, “Mom, I didn’t mean to, but when we left I accidentally set down my tennis shoes for a minute and forgot to pick them back up.”

The offending flats. They're sparkly and cute, but not quite meant for the soccer field.

The offending flats: They’re sparkly and cute, but not quite meant for the soccer field.

My heart sank.

“Ok, ok,” I thought, “super prepared moms don’t freak out, right?” Emergency brainstorm: The kid had no tennis shoes and was dressed for a birthday party. The shoes she was wearing: sparkly flats.

“Hmm—maybe these flats are different from most?” I thought, “Maybe she could run in them just like her tennis shoes?” As soon as we got out of the car I had my daughter do a quick sprint and both shoes flew off before she took her third step. That’s when it started. I had a vision of her dad’s response: the slight eye roll followed by the “I totally expected this” head shake of disappointment. I was in for “the look.”

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Agency (and Comedy) by Design

Before attacking it with household tools, Tatum and her colleagues used a Project Zero thinking routine to consider the parts, purposes, and complexities of everyday objects—like this soon-to-be-dismantled doorknob.

Before attacking them with household tools, Tatum and her colleagues in the Oakland Learning Community used a Project Zero thinking routine to consider the parts, purposes, and complexities of everyday objects—like this soon-to-be-dismantled doorknob.

By Tatum Omari, Guest Author 

When I started working with the Agency by Design research project this past September, I had no idea how much it would impact how I moved through the world. The major aim of this initiative is to empower students and give them a sense of agency they can carry with them throughout their lives. As it turns out—doing this work has had the same effect on the teachers partnering with the research team.

During one of our recent AbD workshop sessions the Project Zero research team led us through a PPC (Parts, Purposes, and Complexities) thinking routine wherein we were asked to disassemble simple mechanical devices. My group had the incredible good fortune of getting to take apart a doorknob. The experience was ridiculously exhilarating. Our eyes and brains fixated on this most ordinary of objects. Quickly, our doorknob morphed from being simple and mundane to becoming one of the most interesting and complex objects ever. We had totally underestimated this household masterpiece!

I can still remember the crescendo of our voices as we finally figured out how to use our tiny tools to get the darn thing to come apart. It was so exhilarating that a few AbD colleagues and I decided to give an entire PPC exercise later to a group of educators at an arts integration retreat. As you might have guessed, our session was focused completely on doorknobs! One of the most interesting quotes from that day was: “There’s blood, we’ve got blood over here!” Hey, we never said looking deeply at objects wouldn’t be fun… and perhaps a little dangerous.

Coincidentally, about a week after the arts integration retreat I found myself locked out of my house. (Here is where I need to give you a bit of personal back-story: My husband had worked as a locksmith for a brief stint one summer and had mentally run me through the process of breaking through a lock with a drill.) Armed with the memory of my conversation with my husband and my newfound expert knowledge of all things “doorknob,” I just knew this was something I could do by myself. That, and I had another ulterior motive—I had always wanted a cordless drill!

I did the math and I basically had a choice: I could buy a drill for $200.00 and do it myself—or pay someone $200.00 to do it for me. Though the cost was the same, the latter option would leave me without an amazing awesome drill in the end. I really, really wanted that drill. So I embarked on a mission and managed to find a hardware store willing to sell me a cordless drill (that was also charged) and came home and got to work.

I was feeling all sorts of empowered when I sank the drill bit into the metal. I got even more excited as the drill started to push through. Sure, maybe I had no idea where I was supposed to be drilling but I had a good feeling! And then it happened, the drill bit broke off in the door and my face crinkled a bit—like the guy in the bitter beer commercial. I thought quickly to myself “No! I can do this! The drill bit kit came with four bits—I still have three more!”

Fast forward three more broken drill bits—when I finally realized that maybe I needed to learn a bit more about power tools and doorknobs before I could fully claim I had locksmith superpowers… Continue reading

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!

Maker Empowerment: A Concept Under Construction

During a recent Agency by Design workshop session in California, teachers from the Oakland Learning Community used a variety of tools to take apart and tinker around with household mechanical devices.

During a recent Agency by Design workshop session in California, teachers from the Oakland Learning Community used a variety of tools to take apart and tinker around with household mechanical devices.

Over the last 18 months, the Agency by Design team has visited several school-based maker spaces and maker programs, talked with many educators involved in maker-inspired teaching and learning, and read numerous articles and books about the maker movement and maker-based education. As part of our effort to distill common themes, lately we’ve been talking about a concept we’re calling maker empowerment. We arrived at this idea by distilling what we’ve learned, by applying a “maker” lens to the concept of agency, and by trying to articulate our best hope for what young people might gain through maker-centered educational experiences—recognizing that maker-centered learning can take many different forms and yield many different products and activities. Here’s our working definition—what it may lack in poetry, we hope it makes up in precision.

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

If you look at this definition from a design perspective you’ll see that it cobbles together three distinct ideas. The first phrase, A heightened sensitivity to the made dimension of objects, ideas, and systems, points to the importance of simply noticing that many of the objects, ideas, and systems we encounter in the world—from desktops to democracy to driver education classes—are human-made designs. They are comprised of specific parts that fit together to serve a purpose (or multiple purposes), and they can be understood and analyzed from the standpoint of design. Continue reading

Tales from the Tinkering Table Part Four: Scaling Up at “FOL”

This interactive addition to the Future of Learning tinkering table encourages participants to make their own thinking routines. DIY thinking routines? We love it! #hgsepzfol

This interactive addition to the Future of Learning tinkering table encourages participants to mix, match, and make their own thinking routines. DIY thinking routines? We love it! #hgsepzfol

If you’ve been following our series of blog posts about the Project Zero tinkering table, you’ll know that for months we’ve encouraged Project Zero researchers to think with their hands by accessing the materials we’ve laid out for them at PZ’s office in Cambridge, MA. This week presented us with the unique opportunity to share our tinkering table with a larger audience at the Project Zero Future of Learning institute #hgsepzfol. With over 200 participants and 40 faculty members from around the world, “FOL” has served as an exciting  venue to learn more about how working with tactile materials helps people articulate complex ideas and flesh out their thinking.

While participants eagerly listened to the opening plenary session on Monday morning, Edward and I “craft-bombed” a series of tables outside of Askwith Hall at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. When participants emerged from the opening session, a bounty of tactile materials awaited their imaginations. Some folks jumped right in, cutting, taping, creating. Others took materials home with them and tinkered late into the night after the long day of courses and learning groups. Others still brought our materials to their learning group sessions where they engaged in tinkering activities with their colleagues as they collaboratively made sense of their experiences. Each day we found new whimsical treasures added to the tinkering gallery. Below is a brief view into the Future of Learning tinkering table. All very cool stuff!

While participants were listening to the opening plenary session, the Agency by Design research team was hard at work "craft-bombing" the Future of Learning institute. #hgsepzfol

While participants were listening to the opening plenary session, the Agency by Design research team was hard at work “craft-bombing” the Future of Learning institute. #hgsepzfol

The Future of Learning tinkering table, open for business... #hgsepzfol

The Future of Learning tinkering table, open for business… #hgsepzfol

50 Fuzzy Minds for the Future? A funky Future of Learning tinkering made especially for Howard Gardner. #hgsepzfol

50 Fuzzy Minds for the Future? A funky Future of Learning tinkering made especially for Howard Gardner. #hgsepzfol

My perception, your perception, our perception. A 3D articulation of various points of view hangs above the Future of Learning tinkering table. #hgsepzfol

“My perception, your perception, our perception.” A 3-D articulation of various points of view hangs above the Future of Learning tinkering table. #hgsepzfol

Many participants combined words and craft materials to create visual representations of the various conversations going on throughout the Future of Learning institute. This tinkering toys with shadow to encourage meta-looking and the consideration of multiple perspectives. #hgsepzfol

Many participants combined words and craft materials to create visual representations of the various conversations going on throughout the Future of Learning institute. This tinkering toys with shadow to encourage meta-looking and the consideration of multiple perspectives. #hgsepzfol

Like all trees, this Future of Learning tinkering table tree encourages the nurturing of thinking and learning. #hgsepzfol

Like all trees, this Future of Learning tinkering table tree encourages the nurturing of thinking and learning. #hgsepzfol

Tinkering Towards a Definition of Tinkering

In an activity inspired by the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio, participants in a tinkering workshop at Il Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia in Milan experiment with making scribbling machines.

In an activity inspired by the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio, participants in a tinkering workshop at Il Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia in Milan experiment with making scribbling machines.

How do you define tinkering? This question is important to the Agency by Design team, because we’re interested in trying to understand how people think through tinkering. Through our visits to schools like Brightworks, the Athenian School, and the Nueva School, our many great conversations with folks associated with the maker movement, and now with our new tinkering table, we’re convinced that tinkering is a cognitively distinct mode of learning. So the question of how to define it raises an interesting challenge: What would it be like to tinker toward a definition of tinkering?

Gever Tully, founder of Brightworks and the Tinkering School, says that tinkering often begins when you have a model of something that gets you started, but you know it isn’t right yet. So let’s start by looking at a definition of tinkering that isn’t yet right, and see where it leads. According to thefreedictionary.com, to tinker is to “make unskilled or experimental efforts at repair.” According to Merriam-Webster, it is to “repair, adjust, or work with something in an unskilled or experimental manner.” I think about the visitors to the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio who experiment with carboard autmota or soft circuitry, or the students at the Tinkering School who tinker their way through complex, open-ended building projects—and these definitions feel far too thin. They fail to capture the “messing around” aspect of tinkering and its playful dimension. Nor do they capture the maker/DIY movement’s celebration of the pleasures of tinkering or its power as a mode of learning. Plus, there’s a whiff of old fashioned prejudice in the emphasis on unskilled effort.

Tinkering moves along by experimenting with various approaches, so let’s try another definitional approach: synonyms. Here are the synonyms for tinkering offered up by the online thesaurus fiddle with, dabble, doodle, fix, mess with, monkey, muck about, niggle, play, play with, puddle, putter, repair, take apart, toy, trifle with. This approach feels like progress. Terms like “fiddle with,” “mess with” and “play with” seem to get at the flexible, iterative process that’s at the heart of tinkering, though the terms “trifle with” and “niggle” still have an air of condescension in their suggestion that tinkering is a lightweight activity. Let’s keep tinkering… Continue reading

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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