Stories from a School Makerspace, #1 (The Prototype Process)

This is the first installment in a series of reflections from our pilot makerspace at Grand Center Arts Academy in St. Louis.  The point is to not only document the process so we can improve when we go to full-time programming in August, but also to share the process with others who might want to try catalyzing a Makerspace at their school or community center".)  These thoughts may be random, many times not chronological, but when taken as an opus, provide a good deal of insight into how we've learned about how a makerspace works.

It's been three weeks in GCAA room #505, a whirlwind of learning for all of us.  We're conducting a pilot to determine how we can meet the unique needs of a visual and performing arts school.  While the school has a strong arts curriculum, the school leader was concerned with the lack of hands-on design opportunities for students, as well as interested in the interactions between technology/design thinking/making and the arts.  Together, we decided to facilitate a makerspace every Friday during the school day, with no specific scheduling.  Students would be allowed to wander in during their unstructured, tutoring, or advisory times with the explicit permission of one of their teachers.

During week 1, the room was completely empty at 7:30 AM.  This was a design decision, because we wanted to know how cheaply and sparsely we could furnish a makerspace, while adding consumable materials, tools, and workspace incrementally over time.  We had a hunch that we could address two problems with this, one was that students should exercise creativity not only while designing things, but they should also participate in the actual design of the space.  Additionally, we wanted the purest form to emerge as possible, rather than exposing them directly to tools and resources that might limit their creativity.

I remember a vignette I read about a 5th grade teacher that welcomed his students on the first day of school with a completely bare room.  He declared: "this year we're going to learn about westward expansion.  You will live like pioneers, off your own ingenuity."  His students built their own materials, their own paper, their own desks and chairs.  Every facet of their school experience was based on something they built themselves, not only teaching them about the pioneer experience better than anybook (or even Oregon Trail for that matter), but also about what they could do when given the chance to design.

The second problem was that of validation.  As a (pending) non-profit that operates like an agile startup, it's important that we can account for everything that we do, so that we can constantly reflect on how we're doing, deciding to continue the same strategy or adapt.  We felt that by limiting the variables in the space, we could more accurately learn how students would interact with the incremental layers that were added.

The first group of students came to the room upon encouragement from their Social Studies teacher.  "We're here to design something", the group of three seventh grade girls said proudly.  "But we don't know what to do." I explained to them that the goal was to prototype something useful.  It could be "silly useful" or "socially useful".  I also shared a helpful design thinking framework that many people go through as they prototype.  First, we want to "Discover" a challenge.  I told them of a recent project of mine when I discovered that I was tempted by sweets, which were terrible for my diet.  I "discovered" that I was pretty strong during the day, but later into the night I started craving cookies.  I knew this was bad, because I didn't have the self-control to refrain from eating the cookies.  I recommended they set out to "discover" a challenge that impact them or people they care about.  They walked around, giggled, looked serious, went out into the hallway, came back inside, sat down, got up, and came back to where I was standing about 10 minutes later.  "We think bullying and rumors are a problem.  We want to solve it here at GCAA."  I then told them that the next step would be to "interpret" the challenge, or learn from it, and try to figure out why it happens, when it happens, etc.  They again repeated the earlier process, finding space in the room to go sit and talk.  After a few minutes they came back to me, saying they had no earthly idea why it happened.  So I asked them, "how could you learn more about bullying?".  They said they could google the subject, go to the library, think a bit more, etc.  I asked "what would be the fastest way, and they was that best helped you solve the problem here at GCAA?"  They recommended they go ask students in the hallway.  The mini-ethnographers were on to something.  After coming back, they said they had learned enough to start making something.  They shared most of the students they interviewed mentioned that people we're gossipy or rude because they were upset, or someone had treated them with disrespect. Now that they had a hypothesis to move on, I recommended they start building right away.  We call this proces "ideation", or the "now let's build it" moment.  Start small, get someone to test, and add features once you learn how people use it.  

They decided to go back out and "test" an idea one of them had.  "What if we can make people happier, will they be less rude?"  So they went out and told jokes, and then asked people if they would be less likely to say mean things.  They weren't satisfied.  "What if we listen to people say mean things, so they can get it off their chest?" said another.  So they went out and had people say mean things to them, and then asked afterwards if they would be less likely to say mean things to someone else.  "Not really, I still felt like I was gossiping with you."  One girl then remembered a silly trick an elementary school teacher of hers had created to cut-down on tattling. "She called it the tattle turtle.  If you had something to say that wasn't that important, or was important to you and not the class, you could go tell the tattle turtle.  It helped."  So they decided to create something that wasn't a person, cutting down on the feeling of gossip.  They based their prototype on the "tattle turtle" idea, but also wanted to replace the nasty words with something nicer.  Their final brainstorm was to create a box that anyone could approach, push a button, and say something really mean that they would typically say to someone else.  Then, the box would ceremoniously "erase" their words (by playing a song or producing a noise), and say something complimentary back instead.  Because it was a computer, it wouldn't have emotion or agenda, it's goal would be to cut down on the mean things people say to other people by being strong enough to listen to the mean stuff.  They were ready to build!

But we didn't have any materials!

So this presented a new problem.  Either they had to design something that relied only on people (and thus wasn't scalable: "What if I'm sick? or in class?" and posed the originally stated challenge of still feeling like gossip), or we needed some stuff.  We brainstormed for a bit together, and we felt like cardboard and tape were good, cheap answers.  Each of us was tasked with coming up with some materials.  They asked me to go ask the janitor where boxes were kept, two of them would go pester the art teacher for some tape, and the other would ask their Social Studies teacher for some scissors.  Within a few minutes we reconvened with sufficient materials to get started.  

One girl had picked up some dry-erase markers from another teacher (remember, there was nothing in the room when they came in earlier that morning), and I found some dry-erase boards in the computer teacher's room.  They started to build a box out of cardboard.  I told them that they should "test" as early as possible with real people, even if the design was lacking in all the features they wanted it to have. "But it doesn't have a microphone" one said.  I told them that you might learn it doesn't need a microphone.  Either way, talk to people about how they use it and you'll know for sure.

By the end of the time they spent, they had gone through at least 3 prototypes of the box, tested by real students, and learned tons about how the box would work.  While based on the earlier idea, what the had learned through testing had dramatically improved the design (It was still ugly, but at least they knew how people would use it).  "We have to go to class now," one of the girls said.  

"But can we come back next Friday?"

Disruption Department