Where else can you find a metallic fire-breathing dragon, a life-size electronic giraffe, a bicycle made from bamboo, a flame-powered pipe organ, battling robots, marshmallow shooters made from PVC pipes and a variety of objects — including musical instruments — created with 3-D printers?
O'Reilly Media's annual Maker Faires have become the showcase of the maker movement — an offshoot of do-it-yourself culture that encourages people to make stuff with electronics, robotics and 3D printing, as well as with more traditional arts and crafts like woodworking and metalworking. The seventh annual Maker Faire, this one in San Mateo Calif., attracted more than 100,000 attendees, including me and my family. O'Reilly calls it an "all-ages gathering" of tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science clubs, authors, artists, students and companies who want to show off the stuff they've made. I call it a lot of fun.
At this year's faire, Adam Savage, co-host of the Discovery Channel's MythBusters series, talked about all the stuff he made when he was a kid, including his own R2-D2 and a James Bond briefcase, with a button he pressed when he wanted to pretend to blow things up. He also used refrigerator boxes to turn his mom's closet into a spaceship, which ended up being the set for a Super 8 Sci-fi film he made with his friends down the street. How cool is that?
Savage also talked about the fact that more people are embracing the idea that you can learn a lot by making stuff. "Ten years ago if you were in engineering school, you could almost get a degree without ever having to build anything, but we are shifting back and people are getting their hands dirtier," Savage said. "Budget cuts are taking away all the quote, unquote frivolous things in the high schools — like the drama club and the music department and especially the shop classes...We have to keep getting kids interested in making things and getting their hands dirty."
He's not the only one who thinks so.
There's lot of talk about the disconnect between what kids are learning in school and what they need to know when it’s time to find a job. A recent Time magazine story noted:
- High school dropout rates continue to soar.
- The unemployment rate for high school graduates who are not in school hovers at an appallingly high 33 percent.
- Only 40 percent of the students who start at four-year colleges graduate.
- Only 23 percent of kids complete the two-year community college programs they start.
In the meantime, Time notes, "the U.S. has begun to run out of welders, glaziers and auto mechanics — the people who actually keep the place running."
"College for everyone has become a matter of political correctness," Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University, told Time. Ravitch says that less than a quarter of new job openings require a bachelor of arts degree, which means "we're not training our students for the jobs that actually exist."
Dan Swinney, who founded the Center for Labor and Community Research (CLCR) in 1982, after Chicago lost thousands of manufacturing jobs, knows that firsthand. Swinney said he was talking to a manufacturer looking for a mold designer who couldn't find a qualified candidate to take the $100,000 a year job, with benefits. "This is a deep problem facing small manufacturers," Swinney said at an October, 2011 inner city economic development summit in Chicago, hosted by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City. "For 30 years we have been anchored in a speculative economy. There's been a total disconnect with the value of making things, of production. Chicago doesn’t have a vocational school any more. In 2001 not one guidance counselor would refer a kid to a job in manufacturing...Yet there’s 5,000 jobs at $65,000 a year going unfilled. It’s a deep educational problem."
Now I'm not saying that kids should give up on 4-year colleges and head to a vocational school. But I do appreciate that the maker movement is making 'making things' seem cool. I watched as hundreds of kids sat at tables and on the floor, making everything from ultraviolet flashlights to Lego models to rocket ships out of empty toilet paper rolls to gadgetry built with Arduino electronics components.
Making is Personal
"It's really been about engaging and doing something and understanding that there's a difference between being a maker, a producer, a creator and seeing yourself as a consumer, buyer," said Dale Dougherty, who co-founded O'Reilly Media (with Tim O'Reilly) and is the co-creator of the Maker Faire. "Making is an experience. It's a process. It's something that you do...That's what makes it special — making is very personal."
The Maker Faire offers free tickets to teachers, many of whom come looking for projects they can do in the classroom, Dougherty said in an interview. (There will be about 60 Maker Faires around the world this year, though the San Mateo event remains the largest.) Dougherty said he and his team are also working on an educational program called Maker Spaces aimed at introducing the idea of making into high schools. The idea is to set up a dedicated place where kids can make things, especially given the loss of shop classes and other hands-on labs at many schools.
I asked him how the event has turned out compared to his original thinking. Dougherty says it's gotten even bigger than he imagined, and he's encouraged that companies — including tech companies in Silicon Valley — hire makers. He says he also loves to hear stories about people who attended the Maker Faire and were inspired to make something to show off the following year.
"The core of my idea around Maker Faire was — like science fairs, art fairs, county fairs — to invite people to bring their work and talk to other people and show it. Conversation was the heart of it," Dougherty says. "If they just put it on display and walked away, that wouldn't be Maker Faire. People want to hear how they got the idea, how they got their tools."
We certainly left the Maker Faire inspired. I'll be giving my kids' teacher subscriptions to MAKE magazine going forward. And while I don't have any plans to assemble my own personal R2-D2, I'm pretty sure I can make a pair of marshmallow shooters without too much trouble. — CG
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