Meet Your Maker

I’m working my way through my second semester with grade nines in computer studies. I’ve tried to bring as much ‘shop’ as I can into computer studies.  My background was in I.T., so getting into the nitty gritty of electronics has been an expansion of my craft which I’ve enjoyed as much as the students seem to.

Using Arduino microcontrollers we bridge the gap between hardware and software and get students comfortable with the idea of building circuits as well as controlling it with code.  This year I’ve also gotten a Raspberry Pi up and running as well as building dozens of desktops. A resurgent maker culture has made electronics much more accessible and customizable; it’s a good time to be teaching computers.

Maker Culture

This semester we’ve been pulling apart broken electronics and reusing digital displays, microphones and other components in our Arduino Frankenstein creations.  Some of it will work, some of it won’t, but the process will make Makers of many of the students.

The real fear in using technology is that many users don’t have the faintest idea how things work.  When it breaks there isn’t a frame of reference of where to begin, fixing anything seems impossible.  After breaking apart their first digital clock, or radio, or electronic game, students begin to recognize the components because they’re already familiar with the bits and pieces having used them to assemble a dozen Arduino projects already.  With the mystery gone, they begin to grasp the power their minds and hands have.

I’m re-reading Matthew Crawford’s Shopclass as Soulcraft.  It’s such a complex read, with so many ideas packed into each page, a second run through will do me good.  If you’re an educator, and you can take some well intended criticism, reading the first couple of chapters will challenge many of the assumptions we wrongly found current educational theory on.   I imagine most educators won’t find the criticism comfortable, no matter how well intentioned.

I’m about to get my first motorcycle and I’ve found myself casting about, trying to figure out who I can get to maintain it for me.  A chapter in and this ex-mechanic is getting his hands on a shop manual and doing it himself.  One of the reasons I want to begin riding is to develop a closer relationship with the machinery I use.  The plastic covered, warrantied cars I drive don’t do that.  The nakedness of a motorcycle begs for it; I’m looking forward to that quiet, focused mind driving busy hands.

There is something inherently valuable in being able to fix what you use.  I’ve never had to argue for the value of what we do in computer studies, the learning has inherent worth, is immediately useful, and applicable in a surprisingly wide range of situations.  From the insides of an operating system to the flow of electrons around a circuit, these students develop a familiarity and comfort level with something that most people are more than happy to use in blissful ignorance (until it breaks).  The tactile nature of the work also draws in even the most reticent.  Working with your hands, making something real work through trial and error, offers an experience missing from much of academia.  Crawford’s philosophical attack on the globalized knowledge economy happens every day in my classroom.

Many of these students will move on to other interests in other fields, but none of them will ever again be at the mercy of their ignorance while working with a computer.  I’ll have to paste rubrics and marks over all this to make it credible to the establishment, but the moment a student who has been whacking his head against his own bad wiring for half an hour realizes what he’s done and fixes it himself, he has developed a tiny bit of independence, and perhaps realized that paying attention is a powerful ally.  Learning shouldn’t be frustration free, if it were, it wouldn’t mean anything.  With minds and hands engaged in a battle with realistic demands, the rewards are hard to quantify in a mid-term mark.

ECOO15 1: Making Frustrations

Back from ECOO15 and, as usually, my head is full.  After a rough year of politics around Ontario Education it’s nice to attend a conference made by teachers for teachers about… teaching!  Not a politician in sight, though attendance was wounded at this volunteer run conference by them.

ECOO may have been the site
of the first ever 3d photobomb!

I spent Wednesday with my robotics teacher showing people how to make 3d models using a Structure Sensor – a 3d laser scanner that is cheaper than the ipad it connects to.  It’s one of those game changing bits of engineering that suddenly opens up the complex world of 3d modelling to pretty much anyone.

We put the scanner into hundreds of hands and Katy was on there to show them how our 3d printers took those models and made them tangible.  For many who have heard of the maker movement, 3d modelling and printing but had never seen it in action, it was a seminal moment.  I’m hoping it also means people start considering how we can move toward a maker mentality, because it’s about as far removed from what we do in formal education as you can get.

Buddha Tim by tking on Sketchfab – @banana29‘s first 3d model, nicely done!

The next day, the opening keynote by Silvia Martinez was an overview of makerspaces and how they create a genuine learning environment.  Unfortunately, and like so many other educational books capitalizing on a trend, the keynote sold the concept of Making based on the fantastic contraptions shown at world class Maker Faires.  This is akin to saying everyone should play soccer like this, and then showing them the World Cup.

Education teaches students to expect success if they do what
they’re told.  Engineering demands mastery, creativity and
resilience; reality is a demanding teacher.

As I said in the conference, making involves frustration and failure.  More often than not it results in a prototype that doesn’t work.  I find that the grade nine students I am introducing this process to are greatly aggravated by the inflexible demands of reality.  They are quick to blame and even quicker to give up.  The most common comment is, “just tell me how to do it.”  The sub-text is, ‘I’ve learned to do what I’m told in order to show I’m learning.  Why aren’t you doing that?’

Students are used to the education system jigging things to ensure success.  The process of invention doesn’t do this and reality has no interest in modifying how it works so that students can feel good about their effort.  I don’t teach ‘I tried real hard’ or ‘guaranteed success’.  What I do teach is how computers and electronics work, and I expect students to develop skills sufficient to be able to work this these inflexible devices.  Once the mastery is managed, play can begin.  Shakespeare wasn’t writing plays while he was still learning to write.

This was posted by Bre Pettis way back in 2009.
This kind of radical engagement isn’t the managed

and directed engagement teachers are looking for.

If you want to build with electronics and digital technology (which are what are empowering much of the maker movement), you need to have something more than boundless enthusiasm.  Using digital technology isn’t effortless despite the marketing.  There is mastery learning required before you are cranking out 3d prints of gears and building your own robot out of garbage.  Many of the people creating the things you see at a maker faire are trained engineers.  I’ll bet that the kids shown at these Maker Faires are relying on some engineering expertise at home as well.  It’s nice to see their creativity, but it isn’t the only thing, or even the main thing, that is enabling these builds.  It’s like watching the child of a scientist presenting a surprisingly fantastic science fair project.

My concern is that Ontario Education will rush into this exciting and trendy fad, buying stacks of Arduinos, Raspberry Pis and 3d printers which will then gather dust when teachers realize that this equipment isn’t Lego, it doesn’t build itself with enthusiasm.  Your code has to be flawless and your wiring exact for even basic things to happen, and even when you’ve done everything right it might not work anyway because the LED you used happens to be defective.  You can’t simply lower expectations and then see results.  These are complex systems being created.

I struggle each year to get high school students to develop resiliency and master skills in electronics and digital technology so I would ABSOLUTELY LOVE to see the maker movement and its attendant philosophies infect Ontario’s classrooms.  The kids are more than capable of developing this resiliency and expertise, but I suspect that the vast majority of educators (many of which I help to plug in their desktops each day) aren’t.

The maker movement pushes back against vapid consumerism.  I’m a big fan of intimately knowing the machines I use.  The motorcycle I ride I restored after finding it in a field, the computers I use I build from scratch, but it took me years to build my mechanical and digital skills to this level.  Most people aren’t that patient, or curious.  Most people want immediate satisfaction, which is why they drive their cookie cutter SUVs to shopping malls.

Most teachers are no different.  If it isn’t their curriculum, it’s of no interest. Trying to push maker tools into that kind of classroom is a disaster waiting to happen.  If you’ve never used Linux, let alone installed an OS onto an SD card, what makes you think you will make magical use of Raspberry Pis?