Can Building Robots Reboot Education?

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On a slyly subversive panel of Bay Area technology enthusiasts, Dale Dougherty, founder of MAKE Magazine, laid out a recipe for remaking education through what he calls the "hands-on imperative." 

Makers, a  growing group of tech enthusiasts who self-consciously make weird stuff, aren't usually considered a force for social change. That's because building an animatronic dragon that shoots fire or a potato gatling gun doesn't seem to have much to do with education.

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Robots as Warriors, Toys, and Art
But here at the Aspen Ideas Festival Friday, Dougherty argued that his merry mischief makers could change the way society responded to its problems. Making, as a practice, he suggested, is a profound response to a hyperconnected, complex and opaque world. By tearing apart the stuff of postindustrial society and rebuilding it into new toys or projects, people learn how their technologically saturated world actually functions. 

"The hands-on imperative means getting your hands on a computer to open it up and see how it was made to figure out how to make use of it," Dougherty said. The people who do that sort of thing are hackers, but not in the pejorative sense of the word. Rather, they "take things and personalize them and make technology do what they want it to do."

In so doing, the hackers learn that the way you learn how something works is by making it yourself, be it a robot or an educational system. "I'd like you to think about the hands-on imperative as not being limited to things that you can grab with your hands," Dougherty said. "Today, people think about getting their hands on data, getting their hands on their DNA."

Perhaps the most immediate place the maker ethic could have an impact is in schools. Tony DeRose, who works for the film company Pixar, founded a program based on his work with his own children for getting young people involved in building technologically sophisticated projects. 

"When we start a project, we don't know how we're going to do things," DeRose said. "The process creates so many different learning opportunities in different disciplines -- physics, mechanics, and chemistry."

In 2007, for example, he and his son built a large multitouch screen, something akin to a giant iPad. In later years, they created the fire-breathing robot dragon you see below. 

DeRose and Dougherty both think that the maker ethic could revolutionize training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. They've even begun to develop a set of principles around which the curriculum could be built. 

"Exhibition instead of competition. Child driven. Open-ended. Multidisciplinary," DeRose listed.  

It might all sound very California and soft, but Dougherty noted that it's this very spirit that informed the early careers and inspired the values of many of the titans of Silicon Valley like Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates. 

"They found something to match their interests and not only created a business, but an industry," Dougherty concluded.

Dougherty's team even recruited a team of local makers to showcase their stuff at Aspen's first Maker Faire. We'll have photos from that effort up soon.

Image: Dale Dougherty. Credit: Alexis Madrigal.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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