This fall, I’m running the Autumnal Maker School (AMS). What’s required to be in the school, and to graduate? Make ten things between September 21 and December 21. Preferably useful things, but artistic things work too. I have made a Volvelle, a computer program that calculates the area of a hexagon, a graphic design sample that shows how to make an Egyptian god, a braiding disk, and picture IDs for my school.
What’s the point of AMS? How is it possible to learn how to do something — as opposed to learning about something? Largely, the answer to that question is trial and error. Or, as the alchemists said, Solve Et Coagula: dissolve and recombine. When you make a mistake in a design or creative process, largely what one has to do is disassemble the thing, and re-assemble it correctly. Or at least, one has to acknowledge the mistakes, and note what one would fix in a future effort. This is hard work, but it’s important work, because it shows us how to learn from our mistakes. I maintain that the purpose of these kinds of physical projects is to help us see and learn from our mistakes, and to learn the process of trial and error.
In the photograph above are two boats. It’s supposed to be the Mayflower, because it’s November in New England, and that’s what we learn about in school in third grade around here: the pilgrims, the first Thanksgiving, the Mayflower and all the rest. We’ll leave aside the issues of colonialism for the moment, and focus on the model-building The hull of the ship is a block of 2×4 untreated lumber. One end is cut with a 70°-ish cut to be the stern of the ship. The other end is cut with two angled 70°-ish cut that is supposed to resemble the prow of a ship. It does on one of the ships, and not on the other — where the cuts are angled in the wrong direction. The masts are 1/4″ doweling; the spars are 1/8″ doweling. The sails are white felt. The black rigging on one model is 75-year-old waxed cord from my grandmother’s attic, from a box of leather working tools my Dad had hidden away in his attic after finding it in her attic.
There are a lot of flaws in the model. The masts are the wrong length. The sails are the wrong size. There’s not enough rigging on either ship, and the rigging is HUGE compared to the design of the model. The hull is square and blocky instead of round and pointed. The angles are wrong, the hull is the wrong shape… the list goes on and on.
But what’s not so interesting about the models and their flaws (and there are lot of them), is that they were made through a manufacturing process. The ninth grade made these, in part through me guiding them into a ‘skilled craftsman’-style workshop in the Design Lab. One group of students designed the template for the sails — place the template onto a square of felt, mark and cut the felt through the template, and voila! Sails. Put this dowel into this jig, cut the piece of wood in these six places in the jig, and Voila! Spars. This other jig produces masts. This other jig? (helps with the) cuts for the stern of the ship. We never really designed a good jig for the bow of the ship, and some pieces got cut upside-down. But we still produced fifteen model ships in about six hours of work.
And that’s what I want to highlight in this Autumn Maker School post.
I helped our eighth graders design a manufacturing process. We were producing fifteen model kits of the Mayflower for our third graders. They’re visiting the Mayflower pretty soon, and we wanted them to have assembled the ship model before they went. In order to do that, we had to have fifteen model kits finished for them, and we needed to have fifteen sets of everything. Each model kit had to have all the basic parts, and had to be assemble-able in about an hour and a half with guidance.
And I think they got it. I mean, we were struggling to finish our exemplars, our show-models, on Thursday. And Friday, we finished building the models with the third grade at 3:19:59 pm just as the bell was ringing for the end of the school day. It was down to the wire. And none of this manufacturing process would have been successful without a dozen eighth graders giving up all or part of a study hall on Thursday to finish manufacturing parts. And it certainly wasn’t possible to do without generating a pile of waste — broken dowels, mis-cut 2×4 blocks (too short, too long, stern and bow cut opposite to each other, mis-drilled mast holes), wasted or mis-cut felt, and lots and lots of nodules of hot glue…
And we aren’t even going to go into all the scraps of notebook paper, the whiteboard diagrams, the tools, the materials organization, the management of parts, the mismanagement of parts, the arguments, the frustrations, of working through this construction and creative project.
But this is what manufacturing requires.
For the first time at my school, for the first time for me — I’ve guided a group of students from initial design and prototype phase, all the way to multiple copies of a finished product. They’ve designed something, they’ve shifted their design, they’ve built a complete prototype, and they’ve built multiple copies of that finished product, and facilitated the assembly of that project. We’ve gone from a pile of lumber + imagination to a flotilla of ships.
And that’s what Design Thinking is supposed to do.