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End-of-year maker reflections

Photo of a line-up of toolbox tools - public domain from Pixabay.comI’m noodling these days on the theme of program evaluation — those times when we step aside and take stock of what we’ve done, what we’re planning to do, where we’re succeeding, and where we’re failing. It’s also a time to really step back and see if the PR/marketing/branding/lingo we’re engaging in matches the work that we’re doing.

Here are some things I’m thinking about:

In school makerspaces (K-12 and college), how do we grow the skills of returning students even as a  new batch of beginners may come to our school each year?

What do we want people to know and be able to do? This is a question borrowed from Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design that feels resonant here. A recent visitor from the maker movement in China said to a group of us last week, and I paraphrase, “In the U.S., people are very focused on ‘how to use a 3D printer’ or ‘how to use a laser cutter.’ You should be thinking about how you grow a business or make a product.” Now, I’m not an entrepreneurial maker, and I know that while a small slice of our makers will become that, what is our purpose? It’s not learning tools (after all, our predecessors didn’t walk around bragging about their mastery of hammers and screwdrivers) … what is this skill development leading to?

Building on the statement above, how are libraries and librarians supporting entrepreneurship related to making (and not to making) in their communities? How can our role as information sherpas position us well to help folks track down the research, paperwork, and intellectual property questions that will help them grow?

What really is the role of human workers in U.S. manufacturing moving forward? The maker movement is full of narratives about redesigning small batch manufacturing, turning assembly line workers into entrepreneurs, or using Kickstarter to become business owners. To be successful and financially competitive, this might mean outsourcing manufacturing out of the U.S. What is realistic to expect? Who are our models? And how much of manufacturing has been automated to the point that expecting job expansion is no longer viable?

For children, what is the role of agency in making? Is it just exposure to tools? to toys that let them tinker with the “aha” moment of STEM when a true STEM career has so many other elements that compose 99% of the STEM professional’s day? Or should we be pushing them — particularly in public libraries — to accelerate or ramp up or further develop skills?

Maybe said differently … particularly in school and public libraries, to what degree is maker programming entertainment vs. informal learning?

How are makerspaces or maker programs planning for long-term sustainability? What kinds of planning and administrative skills do folks in libraries and schools (and other spaces, but those are the two areas I think about most) need to have to move from wowing initial funders to sustaining growth over time?

How do we demonstrate success? Anecdotes? Head counts?

What were the cool hip things in the early maker movement that are now ready to be phased out or replaced with other things now that we have a better handle on what is novelty vs. what is deeply engaging? Maybe said differently … why do people return over and over to use sewing machines more than they return to use 3D printers?

How “accountable” should schools-based maker programs be to achieving a set of standards versus staying open-ended? How does that impact long-term support and/or funding?

I’m wondering — what kinds of program evaluation/measurement are you doing related to maker work in your space?

(Cross-published from MakerBridge; image – public domain via Pixabay.com)

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Video: For those of you overwhelmed by artisanal messages, part II

I really do love handmade, handcrafted work, but this came up related to our maker class a few weeks ago, and I like this, too.

The Maker from Patrick Kehoe on Vimeo.

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Video: For those of you who are overloaded by artisanal messages

I love all things handcrafted, but I still giggled when I saw this:

The Timmy Brothers – Water Makers from Paul Riccio on Vimeo.

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Inspiration: On Making in the UK

From the Guardian’s Creative Professionals Network comes “Creating is not just a ‘nice’ activity; it transforms, connects and empowers” by Paula Briggs, a lovely discussion of what she sees when working with children vai the AccessArt program there. I particularly like her focus that through doing, children achieve skills like agency, self-confidence, and a sense of self, all of which I find critical to our work:

My memories of childhood relate to stuff – smell, material and texture … Always cutting, shaping and sticking … I know what it feels like to submerge my hands and mind in making, occupied with the struggle to transform and connect material …

It feels so fundamentally good and right to use our hands to manipulate materials – to use tools to extend our ability; to put stuff out into the world. The urge to alter our environment is part of our genetic makeup. The skill of making lies latent within all of us.

We now know that creativity is good for the economy too. The UK creative industries generate £84.1bn a year and account for 2.8 million jobs. It’s the fastest-growing sector of the economy …

We … see 10-year-olds who can’t use scissors. We see art squeezed into obedient slots that require no mess, quick results and easy success … We see children who have never felt success from using a tool to help them manipulate material … never felt the optimism of daring to ask: “would it work if … ?” …

[S]omewhere along the line, making became seen as a “nice” activity, but one we could do without.

So are we really preparing our children for their creative futures? … Making connects the hand, eye and brain in a very special way. It’s empowering for both maker and viewer. The act of making is optimistic; it’s an act of faith. People of all ages feel better for doing it.

Making can also be very social – conversations can meander while hands are kept busy. But it can also be very personal and give confidence to children who listen to their own internal monologue that takes place as they make in solitude.

If we want a world full of creative, entrepreneurial thinkers, we need to enable and sustain making from a very young age. Not all of us will become sculptors or engineers or designers, but we will become more connected, rounded and creative people.

So while making may sometimes seem inconvenient, we need to find the time, space and resources to make it happen.

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Barack Obama on International Partnerships and Youth

Something I forgot to blog about before Barack Obama left office was his essay in Lonely Planet, of all places. In an essay titled, “US President Barack Obama reflects on why a million miles of travel gives him hope for the future,” he writes, in part:

During my time as president, I have traveled well over a million miles to every corner of the world. These foreign trips have included international summits and bilateral visits that have been fundamental to the progress that we’ve made – strengthening alliances, engaging former adversaries, renewing the global economy, and forging agreements to fight climate change, stop the spread of nuclear weapons, expand commerce, and roll back poverty and disease.

I leave office more convinced than ever before that international cooperation is indispensable. Without regular consultations with foreign leaders, and institutional coordination between the US and our allies and partners, we cannot overcome challenges that recognize no borders. It took dozens of countries working together to stamp out Ebola. It took coordinated pressure and careful diplomacy to reach a peaceful agreement to roll back Iran’s nuclear program. Nearly 200 countries spent years in painstaking negotiations to achieve the Paris Agreement to protect our planet. Every single day, the US works seamlessly with other countries to share information to prevent terrorist attacks, stop human trafficking, break up drug cartels, or combat corruption.

But while this cooperation is essential, I have always believed that our engagements with other countries must not be limited to governments – we also have to engage people around the world.  In particular, we must sustain our engagement with young people, who will determine the future long after those of us in positions of power leave the world stage …

More than half of human beings are 30 years old or younger. This is even more pronounced in the developing world – that’s where 90 percent of the global population under 30 lives. These young people are living through revolutions in technology that are remaking life on our planet, allowing for unprecedented access to information and connectivity, while also causing enormous disruptions in the global economy. And while the world’s leaders discuss the pressing issues of the day, it is the world’s young people who will determine whether their voices direct the change that is sweeping our world towards greater justice, opportunity, tolerance, and mutual respect …

Every day, these young people are working to improve their communities from the bottom up. A rapper from Uganda is now promoting civic participation through his music. A Rwandan entrepreneur is using new technologies to provide power to villages that are off the grid. A doctor in Myanmar is offering free surgeries for children. An activist from Thailand has organized young people across Southeast Asia to fight human trafficking. A young Laotian is mobilizing communities to stop the illegal logging that damages the environment. A city manager in the Philippines is launching new initiatives to promote women’s health and combat teen pregnancy; to do so, she is drawing on skills she learned on a fellowship in Montana …

No one of these initiatives will transform our world. But each of them creates a ripple of progress that can gradually bring the change that our world needs. And in talking to these young people, one thing comes up again and again – the value that they gain from being connected with one another …

At a time when we are faced with so much division in global politics, young people are often more tolerant, more compassionate, and more committed to working to make change that benefits their communities from the bottom up.

To read his essay in its entirety and see photos of him engaging with youth of the world, visit Lonely Planet’s site.

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DIY and Political Expression

In our maker conversations over the past few weeks, one thing that has stood out in the protest-fueled air was the DIY nature of the Women’s Marches. Unlike many more top-down rallies, which furnish protesters with ready-made, mass-produced signage, the Women’s Marches often featured original, individual, and hand-crafted signs, as well as handmade pink hats known as “pussyhats” (ugh – not a term I’m fond of, but I get why they used the name).

Here’s a clip from Rob Walker’s recent story from The New Yorker, “The D.I.Y. Revolutionaries of the Pussyhat Project,” highlighting the DIY nature of the hats, building on centuries of DIY as protest:

The Women’s Marches … elicited a response from Michael Cohen, the famously combative lawyer for the Trump Organization, and now for Trump personally … “Question: Were the pink hats made in the USA?” …

Cohen clearly didn’t know much about the Pussyhat Project, which made those “pink hats” into a material-cultural phenomenon that could end up earning a lasting place in the annals of political symbolism.

The knitted, sewn, or crocheted hats, often with cat-like ears, were inescapable at demonstrations … They can be read, most obviously, as the opposite number of the red maga caps, which are the defining symbol of any Trump …

But the object also grew out of a politically tinged D.I.Y. tradition that’s been around for years. Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, friends who reportedly began taking knitting classes at the Little Knittery in Los Angeles, last year, started the Pussyhat Project with the shop’s owner, Kat Coyle, after the election. The goal was to outfit as many protesters as possible. Posting hat patterns online, they invited demonstrators to make their own, and suggested that crafters who couldn’t travel to the National Mall make one for somebody else to wear. By January 19th, the organizers estimated that a hundred thousand hats had been made and distributed to march participants.

In short, the project “marshalled a volunteer army of crafty women and men,” Shirley Wajda, a curator at Michigan State University Museum, who is currently in the process of collecting materials from the Women’s Marches, said. “I see the Pussyhat Project as a form of political craftivism, and there are historical precedents for this sort of voluntary production for patriotic purposes, dating back to the Revolution.” She mentions the Phrygian cap, adopted as a symbol by the colonists, who also made homespun cloth to replace fine British textiles, as a gesture of their rejection of British rule … In this instance, Wajda continued, the project … “provided a focussed activity related to the then inchoate Women’s March that individuals could actually do” …

The effort of the volunteer crafters certainly clears up Cohen’s question: most of them were, indeed, making the hats in the United States. And the fact that they did so by hand, using traditional skills and often tweaking or embellishing the original patterns, contributes to the hat’s status as an individual, personalized act of labor dedicated to communal protest …

Read Walker’s complete article here.

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Shifting Gears Post-Election

[cross-posted from Makerbridge]

I’d like to build on Sharona’s post from two weeks ago and discuss post-Election (or perhaps post-Obama) maker movement impulses … something is changing, and I haven’t quite put my finger on it, so here goes with what I know so far.

First of all, we are transitioning from a President who loved technology, innovation, community, and youth empowerment. It’s no surprise he liked the maker movement and elevated into a Presidential initiative. Now we are entering an administration built on big business. There’s a big difference between a POTUS who enjoys shooting off a marshmallow cannon in the White House as a pathway to American excellence and a POTUS who has accumulated a long resume for not paying American workers and outsourcing mass-produced manufacturing under a banner of “America First.” (I’m trying to be fact-based here, not political. And I’ll be honest, there are probably holes in both arguments to be made.)

Anyhow, in the midst of this, we’re running our graduate-level makers course again this winter, which I haven’t taught for 18 months (we’ve offered it annually, but moving it from Fall to Winter led to an above-average pause in it being offered). I’m using Dale Dougherty’s late fall book, Free to Make: How the Maker Movement is Changing Our Jobs, Our Schools, and Our Minds, in my graduate-level makers class this fall. (Later this term, we’ll go into Innocent Experimentswhich I raved about here.)

I read it and thought, “Here’s a book that will give folks an overview of the maker movement from multiple perspectives: education, manufacturing, crowdsourcing/Kickstarter, and more. It’ll talk about some of the key tools and people, some of the goals, and give a really great ladder onto which my students can filter and build new understandings as they engage on their own with maker projects and experiences. There might be a few passages or threads I don’t agree with, but I was on a different maker trajectory than Dougherty was, so that doesn’t surprise me.”

My students, on the other hand, are having quite a different experience. Almost every student — and it should be said that they do the reading and are prepared for class, sometimes recalling details that have slipped my mind since this fall — is troubled by much of the narrative.

According to my Amazon account, I ordered the book on October 27, 2016, and if memory serves, I read it immediately. (I traveled on Election Day, and I know I brought a different book on that trip.) That means I read it before the Presidential Election. I mention these details because I wonder if the timing is contributing to the different lens they are using. They’re pushing back specifically in these ways:

  • Making is described as nearly a cure-all for all woes, from unemployment to psychological depression. (Keep in mind that depression is up on college campuses, so this is a hard one for some students to swallow.) I call this the Thneed effect, recalling The Lorax, in which Thneeds are described as the ultimate Swiss Army Knife purchase — able to do anything! To be honest, I do think that hands-on, repetitive, but creative work does do something powerful to our psyches … and I see it in this class of students. There is a luxuriousness when we just all set out to work on stuff … none of us having much time to just settle in and create things outside of class. It’s powerful. But would I claim it as a cure for a medical malady? I’m not sure I go there, either.
  • Making is seen as a low- to no-cost enterprise, but only if you’re middle class or above. Graduate students, most certainly, do not currently fit that bill. They point out $800 or $1200 or $10K tools early in the book. That’s true. Of course, in my world of making, we’re looking for projects that can engage large numbers of folks. A $1 project is a big deal. Of course, underlying this is the tension: is making meant to grow up from the individual (a more libertarian approach that honors individual impulses but also further empowers those who already have access and means) or grow in a community fashion (which transfers some/all of the planning, purchasing, and executing to organizational budgets, which almost always means less costly projects?)
  • Making as a return to the good old days, something I’ve said in many talks along the lines of, “We need to use our hands … we feel productive when we use our hands … in the era of swipe and click, we want to feel productive with physical objects”? Umm, Kristin, I don’t want to be rude, one tells me (absolutely not being rude in doing so, to be clear), but your generation remembers when economics were better. Our generation never knew those times. It doesn’t feel true.
  • Making is supposed to be any creative act, but the book examples are almost always about technology, digital fabrication, or  making-as-business-enterprise. (To be fair, I caught this theme, too, but I’m used to kinda tampering that theme down in my head, so I guess I now do it almost subconsciously.)
  • There are five types of makerspaces, including libraries, but library makerspaces are the only type that are listed but not described in the book. OK, I caught this one, too, but again, I’m used to being tangential in the larger conversation about making. My students are not. Some came to class precisely because they aspire to library work and think making is an aspect of librarianship that they should understand … so I get it that their identity role isn’t validated in the book.

How about American Maker, the 1960 Chevrolet promotional video Dougherty uses as an example of us being a nation proud to use its hands (embedded below)? I remembered having shown it in class 18 months before. While we found it a bit corny then, and definitely reflective of a world where white men go to work, white women sew and cook, and minorities are absent (FWIW: Detroit was never homogenous or all-white — both Southern migration and international immigration were at play, and I have long hypothesized that immigration is a critical way in which new industries are built — as Hamilton says, “Immigrants … we get the job done.”), this year’s students found it to be a false kind of narrative. Making wasn’t assembly lines and inspectors, as discussed in the video. This whitewashed world where everyone is middle class and sparkling clean on the assembly line wasn’t their America.

So I’m wondering what you think … do you see any of these themes in your work?

  • Making defined as inclusive but fleshed out with purely digital examples
  • Generational differences about the maker movement
  • Maker success being defined primarily via examples of “making for money”?
  • Maker activities where the promised payout far exceeds the reality?

In the meantime, I remain steadfast in my belief that communities coming together to use one’s hands — particularly in more-“neutral” settings like libraries — can be a  powerful balm for our fractured selves. When our hands are busy, but we are together, we have opportunities to converse until we find common ground. That’s my hope, anyway…

 

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On Sewing Machines and Love

I enjoyed this lovely reverie by Jocelyn Heath on the power of sewing machines and traditions across generations in ”The Heirloom Art of the Sewing Machine,” part of The Atlantic’s “Object Lesson” series. I see this kind of family connection when we bring a sewing machine to an event – talk of grandparents and learning to sew from a relative always hover in the air behind those hunched over to make their first stitches.

Both of my sewing machines come from my grandmothers, though neither taught me how to sew. The older one is a child-sized, antique Singer, which can no longer stitch a seam. The hand crank that powers it, however, still turns, and the presser foot still lifts. The other—a plastic electric model from the 1970s—runs well, for now. It’ll eventually go the way of my mother’s machine, a workhorse that outlived the manufacture of replacement parts. When it does, another will take its place, and I’ll have to learn a new set of motions for bobbin-winding and needle-threading …

The first machine-sewing project I remember was a rag doll I made with my mother, during a week-long blizzard when I was in eighth grade. I struggled most with consistency, especially in the doll’s face; no amount of effort could get my satin stitch on her eyes to grow and shrink in increments to form a perfect sphere. Eventually, I abandoned the face to my mother and watched her place the thread at near-perfect intervals. Her needle slipped into the weave of the fabric at just the right points so that her stitches lay snug together, not overlapping, and emulating the circumference of a human eye. Years of cross-stitch and design stitching had taught her the incremental adjustments needed to pull this off …

Unlike humans—who produced natural variation by virtue of training, oversight, preference, or simple idiosyncrasy—the sewing machine could achieve uniformity, evenness, and consistency because its construction “trained” it to repeat endless copies of the desired stitch length …

For my grandmother and others, the inconvenience of time spent negotiating the slippery garment fabrics and stitching buttonholes was apparently worth more than the convenience of designing a fit unachievable by the standardized garment industry … In the U.K., mechanization had certainly put individual artisans out of work, compelling them to seek factory jobs in crowded industrial centers like Manchester and London and condemning many to poverty.

Today, information technology makes a similar threat to supermarket clerks and educators alike, given the ability of machines to learn and execute tasks previously requiring human participation. Sewing machines, too, exist in computerized form; some can be hooked up to computers and programmed with a pattern of choice, be it embroidery or more. What once came from shared knowledge now exists in code.

But hand-crafting is experiencing a resurgence. Young women are learning knitting and crocheting, spurring the rise of Stitch ’n’ Bitch crafting circles. One need not go to a specialty shop to buy fabric or notions; Walmart carries both. Still, most people sew for leisure rather than necessity, making specialty items more often than complete wardrobes …

As her memory fell away and dementia advanced, my grandmother hallucinated that she had a baby. Her mind, unable to retain names or medicines, returned incessantly to this imagined infant. Only physical representations of a baby she could care for relieved her anxiety. For her own sake, I used her sewing machine to make her a doll. Body, clothes, hair, cap—all forged on the old white Singer she’d given me. …

Read Heath’s complete essay at The Atlantic.

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Repair, Resell, Reuse

I’m excited to see Patagonia’s plans for recycling unwanted but still useful garments. Here come a few more sewing jobs that will undoubtedly be more creative and interesting than those for factory construction.

In a new take-back program that will launch in April, [Patagonia] will begin offering store credit for used (but still usable) clothing. At its repair facility in Reno, California—the largest garment repair center in North America—it will wash used clothes with a new waterless technology that helps restore the fabric, and then make any needed repairs. The refurbished garment will be sold on Patagonia’s website …

“If we can make really durable products, and we can work with our customers to keep them in service and in good repair, then we’re providing a solution to the environmental crisis,” says Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia’s vice president of environmental affairs. “Because then the overall footprint of the products that we make, and our customers buy from us, is as low as we can possibly make it. That really is intrinsic to our motivation for doing this” …

When the company initially asked customers to buy less in 2011, it experimented with various programs … At the time, the company launched a new program called Common Threads, which promoted four “Rs”—recycling, reusing, repairing, and reducing consumption.

In 2013, the program was rebranded as Worn Wear, and the company decided to focus on one “R” at a time, beginning with repair. The repair facility in Reno hired more staff, retail stores opened simple repair centers on site, and the Patagonia website added 45 videos teaching consumers how to fix zippers, sew buttons, and make other DIY repairs. In 2015, the company started sending a converted diesel truck around the country on a mobile repair tour. With the new take-back model, Patagonia will move into a phase of focusing on reuse as well.

The repair and refurbish model would be unlikely to work, Ridgeway says, if Patagonia didn’t also design clothing to last …

The company calculates that if clothing stays in use for nine extra months, it can reduce the carbon, water, and waste footprint by 20% to 30%.

Read the entire article and see some great photos at Fast Co. Design.

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