Design Lab: moved #makered

On Tuesday, I’m participating as a moderator and discussion-group leader with the Connecticut Education group on Twitter, talking about MakerSpaces in schools.  That’s on Twitter from 8:00pm to 8:30pm (eastern time), on Tuesday 28 July 2015, on the #ctedu hashtag.  My co-moderators are David Saunders, who wrote about this makerspaces conversation here, and Nicholas Provenzano, otherwise known as the Nerdy Teacher.


But it occurred to me that I should write about this a bit beforehand, so that people know where I’m coming from.  I’ve run the Design Lab (and its blog) at my school since its inception in the 2010-11 school year, and from the start of our design thinking program.  We’ve run numerous workshops for CAIS, the association of independent schools in Connecticut; and I helped launch the professional development blog for CAIS.  And of course, one of the things that got me started in this was seeing Dave Gray at the Learning and the Brain conference in 2009.  There’s an important connection to be made between Design Thinking and Visual Thinking — if you can draw it, after all, that’s a critical component in being able to understand a thing.  You often know the shape of things and parts before you know their names. Anyway, what follows is seven lessons from the first five years of the Design Lab.

1. Model Skills

Small Hands, flush-cut sawThe temptation for most new teachers in any design program is to teach content, I think, because that’s what schools do.  But in truth, what we’re doing is modeling skills: this is how to drill, this is how to saw, this is how to measure and cut wood, this is how to use tin-snips, this is how to bend wire, this is how to solder, this is how to sew.  Some days, when I’m feeling down on myself, I say that “I teach shop”, and my father and others jump in to correct me, “you don’t teach shop, you teach design thinking.”  But it’s amazing how often “design thinking” comes down to showing a kid how to use a tool. My friend Mark says “kids who don’t know how to use tools become inept adults.” And he’s right.  We’ve spent decades farming out ‘the dumb kids’ to vocational programs, but in truth these tool-using skills are essential skills for all sorts of people. Another friend of mine, Josh, says that many of the young engineers he encounters are useless because most of them have only worked with 3D CAD software and imagine that all things can be built with 3D printers — but that they regularly design objects with important empty cavities inside them, that cannot be reproduced by usual milling or grinding or drilling techniques. The engineers have no idea how objects are made. Accordingly, you have to both acquire skills, and practice them.  I’ve been working on knitting, origami, carpentry, sewing and book-binding this year and this summer.  But it could just as easily be about electronics and machinery, or automatons, or game design.  Along the way, you’re going to pick up skills like evaluating tools at yard-sales, and learning to care and clean and sharpen them.  But one of my classes, called String Theory, involved learning to spin yarn, knit, weave and braid— by first building the loom and the drop spindle and the knitting needles in the carpentry shop, and then learning to work with those tools.

2. Collect Junk

Lucet and cordAt the moment, the Design Lab has a couple of massive cardboard boxes, a pile of scrap lumber, and some awkwardly-sized pieces of styrofoam laying around. There’s also some chicken wire in an inconveniently-sized roll, some recycled rubber blocks for stamp-cutting, a pair of sewing machines in need of repair, and seventy-five drawers full of everything from corks to buttons to wooden spools. You are now a junk collector, if you run a Design Lab or a MakerSpace. Every time you go to the store—for wood, for pipe cleaners, for tools— your budget shrinks a little.  There’s less left for the next project, the next program.  You don’t know what you need. You don’t know what kids will need a lot of.  One of the books I read said that materials in a MakerSpace have to be divided into five types of things: flexible materials, rigid materials, connectors, tools, and treasures.  It’s not a bad division, but there’s a dimension that’s hidden from students, too — the individual cost of the items.  I’m in the process of labeling all those drawers with tag-sale labels — 50¢, 75¢, $2.00. Starting this fall, students in the design lab have to produce a prototype-cost sheet: what did this object cost to make?  However, it’s really useful to be able to write the word “Free” on one of those labels.  The cardboard tubes from paper towels that families collect for you? Free. The aluminum cans they collect for you? Free.  Plastic milk jugs? Free.  The shredded paper from the paper shredders, from the recycling bins? Free. All of those materials you collect for free, from cardboard boxes to cleaned styrofoam meat trays from the grocery store help extend your budget.  You may not have to go dumpster-diving… but you do have to look at junk differently.

3. Trauma First Aid

You are now a First Aid Provider.  Learn the skills, update them regularly. If your budget doesn’t include a serious First Aid kit, you’re not thinking about this correctly. Kids in MakerSpaces are going to have accidents. There’s one girl who has produced some beautiful stuff, who has nonetheless bled in every class I’ve ever taught.  One day, I was showing a group of kids how to change the blades in exacto knives, in utility knives.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: “So, remember, when you change the blades in an exacto knife or a utility knife, the old blade is usually dull but it can still cut you, and the cut is often jagged. So wrap the blade and tape it in a sheet of paper, like this, before you put it in the trash.  Additionally, you must remember that the new blade is very sharp, and you should be especially careful not to cut yourself…”
Student: “It looks like you just cut yourself.”
Other Student: “You did.  Wow. That’s a lot of blood, Mr. Watt.”
Me: “And, of course, it’s possible to cut yourself quite easily on a new blade.  Here, let me get out the med kit — you’ll see, it’s hanging right here in plain view, and you can all use it, call me over if you need help — and let me show you how to treat this kind of fresh cut.  First, clean it with a clean paper towel, like this… then maybe rinse in the sink, then apply pressure….

Yikes.  I’m glad I was able to give a good first aid lesson, and in real-world conditions.  Those kids are a lot less freaked out about blood, now.  But you’re going to have to teach them, and do so by being calm.

4. Teach Janitorship

The temptation is to end every program right at the bell.  But MakerSpaces get impossibly dirty, very quickly, and they are impossible for you to clean up by yourself.  I learned best practices around this from the Eli Whitney Museum. The first class I took there, they ended class twenty minutes before the bell, and made us clean up: sweeping, putting tools away, returning excess materials to the right places, and so on. The next class, they ended fifteen minutes before the bell (there was no bell, actually, just a 9:30 pm end time).  The next class, they ended ten minutes before the bell. By the end of of the program, we were able to do the clean-up in three minutes. So. You are now the manager of a janitorial staff.  And the amount of cleaning you do in your MakerSpace is utterly dependent on how well you teach the kids in your room to do clean-up.  Teach your children well, or their playspace will become your hell.

5. Reinvent Yourself

Knitting: ScarfUnless you are already a Maker, you are going to have to become one.  I thought of myself as an artist before I took this job (and a ceremonial magician, but that’s another story).  Take a class: learn to throw pottery on the wheel, or learn how to sew a blouse or a dress shirt that you can wear yourself.  Follow a pattern and make a Halloween costume.  Build a marble-run out of pipe-cleaners, paper towel tubes, and glue.  Learn six cooking recipes by heart, and cook them for six weeks before branching out; or follow an entire cookbook, trying every recipe at least once.

You will make a great many mistakes in this process.

That’s part of the point, of course.  You’re going to have to learn how to treat mistakes as part of the process of learning, instead of project-breaking errors.  You’re going to have to learn to think in terms of parts, in terms of construction sequences, in terms of both structure and beauty, in terms of both two-dimensional and three-dimensional geometry. None of these are easy.  You will make mistakes.  Your work will be ugly.

You’re also going to have to break free of dualistic thinking, and make a point of teaching children to think in terms of non-dualism.  There’s a tendency, not just in teaching, but in our society as a whole, to teach in terms of right and wrong, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, and so on.  But Design, and Making, is a world of shadows and almost.  The act of critiquing a design is quite separate from the act of creating a design— and you must not do these two actions at the same time.

What does non-dualism look like, for a Design Thinker or for a Maker?  This is a complicated thing to write about, because it means learning to see a project in terms of many facets, rather than as a single thing.  Consider the typical science project — a tri-fold board and the experiments that preceded it.  As teachers, we think of it as one thing: as Makers, we have to see it as many other somethings-else:

  • typography training (for the poster)
  • experimental design
  • documentation creation
  • experiment operation
  • scheduling and executive function
  • experimental equipment acquisition process
  • materials-gathering
  • observation skills
  • self-critique, self-reflection, re-design skills
  • prototyping
  • communication, writing, and presentation skills
  • layout design
  • color theory and color theory application
  • Numeric analysis
  • Visual Thinking and Numeracy (translating data into graphs and charts)

It’s easy to fold all of these things into a single grade. But in truth, it’s a vast collection of skills that are being practiced. And not only is it a wide range of skills, but each requires a very different set of thought processes from one another.  You don’t plan your project’s calendar, for example, with the same mindset that you use when you’re closely observing a tank of water for the emergence of tadpoles from eggs.

6. Learn to Draw; Teach Drawing

Zentangle DecorLikewise, no kid is really going to understand tadpoles from eggs, frogs from tadpoles, without drawing.  We do drawing a disservice in schools, with our emphasis on reading and mathematics to the detriment of the arts.  Yet a Maker’s real skill often lies in being able to visualize an element of a design in the mind, transfer that to paper in the form of a back-of-the-napkin sketch, and then translate the sketch into a 3-dimensional realization of that design.

I teach a deliberately medieval style — awkward body poses, giant heads, cartoonish crowns and bishop’s mitres, animals with weird bodies, ‘diaper patterns’ to fill empty spaces or Zentangle motifs.  These teach a good deal of penwork, first of all, and second they get kids’s minds thinking about how drawings are built up from simpler shapes and lines into larger and more complex things.  Ed Emberley, Sachiko Umoto, and other author-illustrators are great for this.

You could do the entire Make Summer Camp program just by teaching yourself to draw and do sketchnotes with Mike Rohde and Dave Gray over the course of August.

If your MakerSpace does nothing else, teaching children to fashion their mind’s-eye visions into drawn approximations is essential.

7. Recruit A New Crew

Your school already has Makers in it.  Hobbyist parents, enthusiastic Lego-building children.  You need to find those people, and make them your friends.  You need to find out what their projects are, and you need a crew of people with whom to share your projects.  You want them to be interested in and encouraging of your projects, because eventually you want them to come into your school MakerSpace to teach you and your students what they know: bookbinding and printing, or sewing, or knitting, or metal working, or jewelry-making, or software programming.

I’m smart.  I’m actually very smart.  But there’s an upper limit on what I can learn in time for it to benefit my students, actually.  I can’t learn to be an electronic engineer, for example.  And I can’t afford to burn through my own Maker budget, either personally or in the school, on teaching myself to be a roboticist.

So far, friends have taught me to solder, to sew, to blacksmith, to be a carpenter, to be a bookbinder, a paper-maker, a printer, and a stamp-carver and a wood-carver and a knitter.  From those, I’ve learned to be a weaver and a spinner, a costume-maker, a machine-builder, a geometer, and a lot of other knacks.  But I can’t learn everything. And not even all the things that I know how to do, I can do in school.

Thus, the circle of friends and acquaintances you have — of Makers, of artists, of artisans, of designers — says much more about the kind of MakerSpace your school will wind up having, than what tools and materials (see item 2, above, collect junk) you actually own.  The crew of friends who make your MakerSpace their second workshop, will wind up determining whether you’re a popsicle-and-glue-gun art room, or whether you’re a serious design studio that turns out clothes or lamps or furniture.


Most of all, remember that your MakerSpace is out to produce Makers.  The quality of the work they produce isn’t nearly as important as the mindset and the attitude that your students cultivate.  If they make the shift from helplessness to self-help, from self-help to problem-solving, from problem-solving to solution-delivering… then you’ve succeeded.  You want your students to make that leap.

But they can’t make that leap unless you show them that it’s possible.  Start practicing your forward-jump today.