The education of a maker

Young makers Pearl Holmes, Jahnavi Kalpathy and Hana Chuang display their “Habitable”—a table that also functions as a hamster habitat—with mentor Joshua Seaver. TONY DeROSE PHOTOYoung makers Pearl Holmes, Jahnavi Kalpathy and Hana Chuang display their “Habitable”—a table that also functions as a hamster habitat—with mentor Joshua Seaver. (Photo by Tony DeRose)One Saturday a month, the Exploratorium in San Francisco opens its doors for Open MAKE. The gatherings, designed to get young people interested in science, are a buzzing mass of inquisitive students taking up a wide array of do-it-yourself projects. On the periphery, adults provide guidance and safety tips to make sure no one gets hurt.

At their first meeting in January the students are generally shy and reserved, says Karen Wilkinson, director of the Exploratorium’s tinkering studio. But by May, the students are anything but quiet. They’re asking each other’s advice on projects and going to one another’s houses. They’ve developed a network of parents and mentors to help them see their projects come to life at “the World’s Largest DIY Festival,” the annual Bay Area Maker Faire, to be held this year on May 19 and 20 in San Mateo.

Maker parents like Tony DeRose (Ph.D.’85 CS), senior scientist and research group lead at Pixar Animation Studios, are all too familiar with the difficulty of finding something engaging for their children to do with their hands. “When my son grew out of Legos at about eight years old, we realized there wasn’t much for him to graduate into,” DeRose says.

That’s when DeRose and his son began working on projects in their garage. Most of the projects went unfinished until they discovered the Maker Faire. Their first exhibit at the fair in 2008 was a multi-touch computer display, similar to a giant iPad.

Tony DeRose (Ph.D.’85 CS), co-founder of the Young Makers program. COURTESY TONY DeROSETony DeRose (Ph.D.’85 CS), co-founder of the Young Makers program. (Photo by Tony DeRose)From there, DeRose and his son were hooked. DeRose wanted to bring the Maker Faire to more students, so he approached founder Dale Dougherty and Wilkinson at the Exploratorium, and a collaboration was born.

DeRose co-founded the Young Makers program in 2010. Later, Young Makers expanded, with several clubs meeting at schools or in parent-run garages and workshops. Each club has a mentor and up to five students. In 2011, 20 clubs with about 100 young makers and 50 adult volunteers participated. Approximately 40 project teams exhibited at last year’s Maker Faire; that number is expected to increase this year.

The Maker Faire is based on an exhibition model, so it’s not competitive. There is also no set curriculum; students choose projects based on their own interests. Mentors are there to ensure safety and provide students with the resources and support necessary to see their projects to fruition.

Makers are people who are “always wondering how things work, taking things apart, who really like to work with their hands in everything from knitting to robotics,” DeRose says. The variety in the students’ projects is astounding—groups have created kinetic horses, hovercrafts and animatronic fire-breathing dragons.

“The most important thing we’re helping to develop in these kids is the ability to learn on their own—to take an idea from conception to completion,” DeRose says.

Jahnavi Kalpathy, a senior at Saint Francis High School, says she first heard about the program through her mother. “I’ve always loved making anything with my hands. That’s what made me really attracted to Young Makers. I could tear apart as much stuff as I wanted and people would encourage me to do it,” Kalpathy says.

During her first year in the program, Kalpathy developed a hamster habitat maze with two other girls. The next year, she built a rollercoaster for marbles. In both projects, her mentors were instrumental in helping her along the way. “I managed to get a lot of support about what sort of materials would be the best to use and where to get them,” Kalpathy says.

The Maker Faire started on the San Francisco peninsula in 2006 and has since expanded across the nation. The flagship fair is still held annually in San Mateo. Don’t miss this year’s Maker Faire!
When: May 19-20, 2012
Where: San Mateo Event Center
Visit: makerfaire.com for more information.

Making Berkeley Makers
This spring, campus-based BEAM (Berkeley Engineers and Mentors) added a group of high school students to their list. Typically, BEAM mentors work with elementary school students, providing structured lesson plans.

But when BEAM began collaborating with Young Makers, those lesson plans were scrapped in favor of more free-form learning. BEAM recently sent a team of four mentors to work with high school makers at the Lighthouse charter school in Oakland. “We’re targeting minority students who don’t necessarily have exposure to science,” says BEAM tutor and Berkeley graduate student Andres Osorio.

The students were responsible for setting their own curriculum—choosing a project based on their interests. From there, mentors had to improvise, creating lessons along the way. For now, BEAM is considering adopting the Young Makers model and expanding it to their other mentoring sites, loosening rigid lesson plans and allowing more room for students’ interests to guide lessons for the day.

The college’s future makers also have something to look forward to once they arrive on campus. At the beginning of May, Texas Instruments announced a $2.2 million gift to update the Electronic Design Lab in Cory Hall and connect it to the adjacent hacker/maker space.

“This is a unique opportunity to introduce a new generation of engineering students to the fun of building things that matter,” says Costas Spanos, chair of the electrical engineering and computer sciences department. “We will do this by infusing the ‘maker’ ethic early into the learning cycle, and by creating a place that brings together state-of-the-art instructional labs, a student meeting place and student-run space for hardware hacking.”