That’s not making…is it?

I’m still thinking about all of the great conversations heading to, during, and heading home from the ETAD Summer Institute this year, the theme of which was Makerspaces. I’ve seen Tweets and blogposts for a couple of years now. I recall a somewhat recent experience where an enthusiastic undergraduate education student asked if anyone in the group had heard of the maker movement before. I was the only one who raised my hand, and with a grin this student then pointed at the 3D printer in the room and said something to the effect of, the maker movement will change the way we teacher so we had better all learn about it and prepare for our classrooms to all have 3D printers. Obviously Teachers and Machines was missing from this undergrad’s required reading list, but I digress.

As someone who has made things from various materials and taught industrial arts in K12, and continue to craft items, I have found the diverse interpretation of what it means to make things a little confusing. A few months ago I was getting a tour of a local maker space and I saw things like 3D printers (at first glance this makes sense), and little bits (makes slightly less sense, more detail to follow), and some ball that you can move around by tracking your finger along an iPhone (seriously!?) What place do these little robots (e.g. Ollie) have in a place that ostensibly is about making? So tracing backwards maybe I can figure this out.

ETADSI - Using Cubelets

In a previous post I mentioned that we had some of what I might call polished products that frequently are found in maker spaces (pictured here are Cubelets). Brian is demonstrating in this photo that he has created a circuit where the pitch of a speaker will increase or decrease  by moving his hand towards and away from the blocks (like a Theremin). He has taken pre-made cubes, with pre-made functions and clicked them together in such a way to get this functionality. Knowing that there are a variety of blocks with different functions that are pre-determined and cannot be changed by the user, is this making?

soldering a circuit board

On the second day Marc Gobeil provided kits for everyone to try their hand at making their own speaker box. The box sides were pre-cut on a laser cutter (thanks Marc!) and pre-made circuit boards were provided. However, unlike little bits – that are just plug and play so not that different to me that the above example – participants had to identify the components (e.g. resistors, capacitors, etc) and figure out where to place them in the circuit board. Then they had to solder the components in place. Once everything was soldered, then we put the boxes together and voila! we had working speakers. I thought for a moment that this was definitely more ‘makery’ than the other kits, but then I remembered that all of the components are still provided to the user. Yes, we had to figure out a bit more than with the polished products and mistakes were way higher stakes, but this might still not be enough.

building the timer circuit by steve lodefink CC-BY-2.0
building the timer circuit by steve lodefink CC-BY-2.0

At the risk of sounding like Grandpa Simpson, when I learned about electronics and electricity this is more like what I had to work with. I was given a generic board (perf board) and a schematic. I would have to translate the images on the page that looked nothing like their real world counterpart, and place them correctly into an arrangement on the board such that the circuit would work. I had to solder everything in place myself and test the circuit (please work, please work) and trouble shoot when it didn’t work. I could come up with all kinds of different arrangements for the components, and if I wanted to change the plans I could. For example, by changing capacitors and/or resistors in the circuit pictured I could change the duration of the timer. If it was a speaker that just produced one pitch, changing the components would control the pitch. I would be at full liberty to change the final product. I could add other parts to the circuit such as a switch to really make it my own. This must be what maker really is. Although, then I remembered this…

For those of you that haven’t ever heard of Thomas Thwaites it’s a story worth listening to. This is one of a handful of examples where we might consider that no one in the world knows how to make most things from start to finish anymore. It also reminds me of the essay I, Pencil (1958) by Leonard E. Read. So maybe Thomas is one of the only real makers in the world. It depends on where we drawn the line – assuming it’s worth drawing.

What are your thoughts? Are there essential elements to making, makers, and makerspaces? If so, what are they?

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