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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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 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.

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

World Maker Faire 2013

Making music with light. Kids experiment with soundwaves... and sound!

Making music with light. Kids experiment with soundwaves… and sound!

This year, the World Maker Faire #MakerFaire was once again held on the grounds of the New York Hall of Science in New York City.  Well over 100,000 people were scheduled to attend this momentous event. The Agency by Design team made the trip down from Cambridge to find out what’s new in the maker universe and to better understand what makes makers tick. Below are some key take-away moments from our visit.

If you were also at this weekend’s Maker Faire, please feel free to share your experiences and impressions of the event. We’d love to hear your thoughts!

A giant sculpture of Make's maker mascot welcomes guests to a rainy start of the 2013 World Maker Faire.

A giant sculpture of Make’s maker mascot welcomes guests to a rainy start of the 2013 World Maker Faire.

Authors Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager make the case for making experiences in education on the New York Hall of Science's Innovation Stage.

Invent to Learn authors Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager make the case for making experiences in education on the New York Hall of Science’s Innovation Stage.

Text this number, and this gizmo will play you a tune. Go ahead, try it! Very cool...

Text this number, and this gizmo will play you a tune. Go ahead, try it! Very cool…

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