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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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

How Does a Maker Space Build Community?: With Snow…

Teams of makers and non-makers alike came together to make stuff with snow at the Artisan’s Asylum Snow Day Maker Party.

Teams of makers and non-makers alike came together to make stuff with snow at the Artisan’s Asylum Snow Day Maker Party.

Understanding how community develops through maker, tinkering, and design thinking experiences is one of the key aspects of the Agency by Design initiative. And so, when a maker space in our own back yard sent out a Facebook community alert this past week—we were all ears…

As many of you will have heard (or experienced!) on February 8–9, 2013 a powerful winter storm rolled over the Northeast United States, dumping nearly 24 inches of snow on the greater Boston area. While local residents hunkered down to weather the storm, Artisan’s Asylum—a 40,000 square foot maker space in Somerville, MA—was plotting a snow day party for makers in nearby Union Square. 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.

Continue reading