Interview with David Wells, NYSCI: Launching a Museum-based Maker Space

I recently wrote here (re: Make Science?) about the emergence of Maker Culture, 3D printers, and my interest in figuring out what they might afford museum-based learning. This led me to David Wells, the new Manager of Creative Making & Learning at the New York Hall of Science, the city’s hands-on science museum. Last March they launched their new permanent Maker Space. Designed to feature workshops on topics like sewing, soldering, and programming using open-source hardware, it is the museum’s most recent commitment to explore how a museum finds alignment between its mission and that of maker culture. I asked David to spend some time with us to share what they have learned in this early stage.

Barry: What is the “Maker” movement all about?

David:  I can ramble about this for a while but I will try to put it in simple terms.  The formal learning process centers around a kingpin, someone that possesses what people are there to acquire.  I will use a financial analogy and call them the Have’s and Have Not’s.  The Have’s are on a different level then the Have Not’s and they need the Have’s in order to become one.  In the Maker Movement, the two groups are very different, I will call them the Know’s and the Know Not’s (terms I borrowed from Neil Gershenfeld’s book FAB).  Everyone, on a daily basis, is both a Know and a Know Not depending, on the circumstance, so the understanding between the two is far more compassionate which, in my opinion, makes Knows willing to offer the Know Not’s their knowledge.

This creates a community of people sharing their different types of Know with anyone willing to listen, creating a platform for amateur and professionals to collaborate and learn from each other, to modify and share their work exponentially.

Barry: When NySci first hosted Maker Faire two years ago, it was just an annual event. Now the museum has made “Making” a permanent part of the museum. How?

David:  Maker Faire is a colossal event in every sense of the term. Being a science center we have implemented some form of making in our programming for a while, but the Maker movement has sparked a different approach to how we see making. It is as much a philosophy as it is about creating and building things. The aspect that separates it from other DIY movements is the reinterpretation of collaboration and sharing. Of course all DIY movements are supported by the community that creates them, but now we have the internet, social networking and the capability to globalize anything instantly. This plays a huge factor.

This resurgence and remix of an already awesome idea bubbling in the consciousness of makers everywhere led us to consider its application in an informal education setting.  Hosting World Maker Faire provided us with the first hand ability to see its potential. When we started implementing this into our programming we found there was a hunger for maker-type experiences.  We were aware of different versions of maker spaces being developed in other informal settings and were excited to create our own Maker Space, which opened in the Spring of this year.

Since then we have gone full steam ahead prototyping and developing engaging, open-ended, child- and family-centric activities that expose our visitors to tools and processes that they don’t typically get at home or school.

Barry: The new space replaced an older space, where kids learned about science by crafting small art projects. How is the new space different from the old?

David: The Maker Space is in the Central Pavilion smack dab in the middle of NYSCI. It used to be a project area, but there are several aspects that make this space different.

First and foremost we received funding from Cognizant to build the space out and buy some amazing equipment.  As a result the potential for diverse and unique programming has expanded exponentially.

The setup of the space is very open, which gives us the ability to be very flexible with how we use it. One day we can have table top activities and the next we clear out all the tables and have an open ended large-scale building project that fosters what I call the 3 F’s: Focused, Family, Fun!

I feel as though I can go on for a while about this but I will cap it with this last point: the activities developed for the Maker Space are designed with the idea of the visitor in mind with the objective of creating an atmosphere that is engaging, an experience that stays with them and facilitation that guides the “Maker” to explore materials and discover their creative potential.

Barry: What role does digital media play within the space?

David: As I stated earlier, the internet and social networking is what makes this movement different from previous DIY movements, providing local and global communities everywhere.  What I left out was the programming capabilities of the digital age.  People are creating software that is more user-friendly and open-sourced, which means anyone has access to use the programs, modify them and share them. As a result the users are empowered to create things that benefit themselves as well as the surrounding community. This concept not only helps the programmers but it benefits everyone else by making programs available on an intuitive level. For example, CAD software has been used for drafting architectural plans and engineering designs for decades, but nobody but people in those professions knew how to use them.  Now there are 3D platforms that anyone can use in order to create anything they want, from simple geometric shapes and digital objects to rooms and entire environments.

Here at NYSCI we have two Makerbot Replicators, an open source 3D printer.  It spews ABS plastic in the same fashion you would squirt icing out of a tube onto a birthday cake. The difference is that when the Replicator is finished you have a 3D model. You can design a 3D object in a software such as Tinkercad and print it out. AMAZING!

Barry: What did it take to bring a 3D printer into the museum? Was it a challenge gaining institutional buy-in?

David: Given that we host Maker Faire and the 3D printer EXPLOSION (there were over a dozen companies showing their 3D printers this year) it was very easy.  All I had to do was order them, and I was urged to do so by my boss.

Barry: What are your plans for using the 3D printer in the museum’s educational programs?

David: The applications for the 3D printer will inevitably keep expanding as we understand its capabilities.  So far I have been using it for quick prototyping and creating toys.  I am facilitating a toy- making workshop as part of our Fall Make Academy, an 8 week program for 5th and 6th graders.  We will be making all types of toys from classic hand cut wood toys to 3D printed custom action figures.

My plan is to have the kids create a 3D bust of themselves using 123D Catch and print a 3D likeness of themselves on the Replicator. Then they will design, modify and/or construct an action figure of themselves!  I am getting excited just saying that!! It blows my mind right now and I’m 40 years old… I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to have this available to me as a child!

Barry: How does a science museum’s mission align with Maker culture?

David: Directly from the website, NYSCI’s mission is to convey the excitement and understanding of science and technology to children, families, teachers and others by galvanizing their curiosity and offering them creative, participatory ways to learn.  This speaks for itself.  There are many different definitions and interpretations of what the Maker Movement is, but it is undeniable that it fits perfectly into our mission.

Barry: What do you think museums can learn by looking into how Maker culture can inform their educational programs?

David: First I will say, it should be seen by all learning institutions, formal and informal alike.  It is a culture that fosters the idea of lifelong learners and, from an educational viewpoint, it offers entry points to learners that have unique approaches and pathways to understanding.  I don’t believe that you need fancy equipment and a ton of money, as the bloodline of the movement is being resourceful and creative while interpreting situations and solving problems.

That being said it is important, as an educator, to figure out how making fits your life. Some people think, if I don’t have a laser cutter or computers I can’t do that.  Everyone is a Maker and finding what you love to make and sharing it is a great way to understand how personal interests can motivate anyone to learn.  Then it is a matter of utilizing this in an educative way.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
This entry was posted in Interviews, Practice, Theory and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Interview with David Wells, NYSCI: Launching a Museum-based Maker Space

  1. I’m so very jealous of kids today!
    I think there’s many parallels between the Maker movement and (good) 1:1 classrooms.
    That’s also what terrifies some established teachers: to make it work, you need to be willing to let go and learn from the kids too. Sadly, the traditional and prevalent model of US education is dissemination, not collaboration.

Comments are closed.