Make Science?

A few weeks ago I went to the New York Maker-Faire. Maker-Faire, a wild outdoor carnival where technology and art meets ingenuity and oddness, has been coming to the city for the past three years. According to Wikipedia, Maker Faire is an event created by Make magazine to “celebrate arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mindset”.

But ever since the first of the Faires launched outside San Francisco in 2006, they have been not just an event but a window into an emerging new practice, or set of practices, or a mindset, generally referred to as “making”.

Chris Anderson argues in his new book documenting this movement, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, that we are at the dawn of a new age:

Wired magazine editor and bestselling author Chris Anderson takes you to the front lines of a new industrial revolution as today’s entrepreneurs, using open source design and 3-D printing, bring manufacturing to the desktop.  In an age of custom-fabricated, do-it-yourself product design and creation, the collective potential of a million garage tinkerers and enthusiasts is about to be unleashed, driving a resurgence of American manufacturing.  A generation of “Makers” using the Web’s innovation model will help drive the next big wave in the global economy, as the new technologies of digital design and rapid prototyping gives everyone the power to invent — creating “the long tail of things”.

The ideas in his book drove the main section of the recent issue of Wired Magazine, which featured on the cover maker-extraordinaire, Bre Pettis, founder of Maker-Bot (more on Maker-Bots below). But this isn’t just some scifi tale Wired Magazine is spinning for its geeked-out fans. Note the recent article in the New York Times, “Worries Over Defense Department Money for ‘Hackerspaces’”:

This fall, 16 high schools in California started experimental workshops, billed as a kind of “shop class for the 21st century,” that were financed by the federal government. And over the next three years, the $10 million program plans to expand to 1,000 high schools, modeled on the growing phenomenon of “hackerspaces” — community clubhouses where hackers gather to build, invent or take things apart in their spare time.

The Times article does a good job describing the controversy over whether military funding will co-opt these spaces as they expand. But of interest to me right now is simply that these spaces are expanding. And part of that growth is coming through Pettis’ Maker-Bot, an increasingly easy to use (and afford) personal 3D printer.

When I went to the first New York Maker-Faire two years ago, there was a large section dedicated to Maker-Bot, 3D printing, and new businesses emerging around them (e.g. companies that sell artists’ jewelry and other 3D-printed goods). Here is my son back then looking at an early Maker-Bot, enthralled by the printer head constructing a physical object from glow-in-the-dark material, one level at a time:

Two years later, I believe 3D printers occupied three different sections of the Faire (with a fourth section featuring giant machines cutting shapes from files into wood), and were no less fascinating. People lined up to watch the machines, touch the objects produced and, for the first time, design their own. An iPad app called Doodle3D (pictured at right) allowed anyone to sketch a simple shape with their finger then hit print. Voila! A few minutes later out it came on the 3D printer.

I tried it out with the AMNH logo. It was a bit clunky so it only bears a passing resemblance, but you can get a sense below of what it looked like in the printer then in my son’s hand. All it all, it took about 15 minutes and it was remarkable to be able to prototype a concept so rapidly.

So what does the emergence of maker culture, of hackerspaces, of 3D printers mean for museums? How can they inform the intersection of digital media and museum-based learning, or support youth learning about and promoting science (Make Science?)?

If you have thoughts, please post them below.

To learn more I reached out to David Wells, who coordinates the new Maker Space at the New York Hall of Science (the host of the annual Faire). I was hoping he could shed some light on how a museum finds alignment between its mission and that of maker culture. I also wanted to know how one can bring 3D printers into youth media programs. When the interview is completed I look forward to sharing it here (and if you have questions you’d like me to ask him, please post them below in the next few days).

Until then, look to the right to see what I made!

 UPDATE: The interview with David is now live.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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2 Responses to Make Science?

  1. Rafi Santo says:

    Now that you’re in the museum space Barry, I’d definitely say that you’re actually in quite good company when it comes to having peers thinking about the intersection of maker culture and education. In fact, to my knowledge there are no intentionally education oriented institutions that have done more work to integrate maker culture than museums have – definitely more than schools, afterschool programs, and libraries. Some of the big leaders in this space are of course NySci, as you mentioned, but also the Exploratorium in the Bay Area, the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Children’s Museum of Portland and Museum of Science in Boston.

    I think that where you might find your “edge” here (to use that term pretty loosely) is that most of the museums I mentioned have a general science orientation, and as a result doing explorations with things like cooking, circuitry, woodwork, and mechanical engineering are all fair game mission-wise. AMNH is a science museum with a particular focus on the natural world, and so perhaps might have to think in more creative ways about the particular intersections with Make culture that can help it meet its mission. First order of business imho: having kids design, 3D print, and assemble dinosaur fossils! : )

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