Technology October 2010

School for Hackers

The do-it-yourself movement revives learning by doing.
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Kimberly Wright/Reuters/Corbis

Imagine a school where kids could do the following: clone jellyfish DNA; build gadgets to measure the electrical impulses of cockroach neurons; make robotic blackjack dealers; design machines that can distinguish between glass, plastic, and aluminum beverage containers and sort them into separate bins; and convert gasoline-burning cars to run on electric power.

No such school exists, but in August I went to Detroit and met the kids who did all these things, and more. They—along with 22,000 other people—had come from all over the United States and Canada to demo their creations at Maker Faire, a two-day festival of do-it-yourselfers, crafters, musicians, urban homesteaders, kit makers, scientists, engineers, and curious visitors who congregated to present projects, give performances, and swap ideas. Having attended eight Maker Faire events since 2006 (they’re put on by the same company that owns the magazine I edit), I’ve become convinced of two things about children and education: (1) making things is a terrific way to learn, and (2) schools are failing to teach kids to learn with their hands.



Video: The author describes how he began his own do-it-yourself adventure

The ideal educational environment for kids, observes Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College who studies the way children learn, is one that includes “the opportunity to mess around with objects of all sorts, and to try to build things.” Countless experiments have shown that young children are far more interested in objects they can control than in those they cannot control—a behavioral tendency that persists. In her review of research on project-based learning (a hands-on, experience-based approach to education), Diane McGrath, former editor of the Journal of Computer Science Education, reports that project-based students do as well as (and sometimes better than) traditionally educated students on standardized tests, and that they “learn research skills, understand the subject matter at a deeper level than do their traditional counterparts, and are more deeply engaged in their work.” In The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely, a behavioral psychologist at Duke University, recounts his experiments with students about DIY’s effect on well-being and concludes that creating more of the things we use in daily life measurably increases our “feelings of pride and ownership.” In the long run, it also changes for the better our patterns of thinking and learning.

Unfortunately, says Gray, our schools don’t teach kids how to make things, but instead train them to become scholars, “in the narrowest sense of the word, meaning someone who spends their time reading and writing. Of course, most people are not scholars. We survive by doing things.”

So it makes sense that members of the DIY movement see education itself as a field that’s ripe for hands-on improvement. Instead of taking on the dull job of petitioning schools to change their obstinate ways, DIYers are building their own versions of schools, in the form of summer camps, workshops, clubs, and Web sites. Tinkering School in Northern California helps kids build go-karts, watchtowers, and hang gliders (that the kids fly in). Competitions like FIRST Robotics (founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen) bring children and engineers together to design and build sophisticated robotics. “Unschooler” parents are letting their kids design their own curricula. Hacker spaces like NYC Resistor in Brooklyn and Crash Space in Los Angeles offer shop tools and workshops for making anything from iPad cases to jet packs. Kids in the Young Makers Program (just launched by Maker Media, Disney-Pixar, the Exploratorium, and TechShop) have built a seven-foot animatronic fire-breathing dragon, a stop-motion camera rig, a tool to lift roofing supplies, and new skateboard hardware.

When a kid builds a model rocket, or a kite, or a birdhouse, she not only picks up math, physics, and chemistry along the way, she also develops her creativity, resourcefulness, planning abilities, curiosity, and engagement with the world around her. But since these things can’t be measured on a standardized test, schools no longer focus on them. As our public educational institutions continue down this grim road, they’ll lose value as places of learning. That may seem like a shame, but to the members of the growing DIY schooling movement, it’s an irresistible opportunity to roll up their sleeves.

Mark Frauenfelder is the editor in chief of Make magazine and the author of Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.
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Mark Frauenfelder is the editor in chief of Make magazine and the author of Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.

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