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Build your own: DIY and STEM meet up in 'maker' type of playtime

Published: Thursday, June 12 2014 9:30 a.m. MDT

Purina ONE hosts DIY activities to highlight how puzzle feeders play into cats' natural instincts and create an enriched feeding experience at Maker Faire New York, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013.

Jason Decrow, Invision for Purina ONE

When Alice Brooks was little, she wanted a doll.

Her father gave her a saw instead.

She soon learned she could make her own dolls — and animals and other toys. At 8, she was comfortable with tools in a way that most kids her age were not. She became excited about building, and one of the most valuable things she built, she said, was her own confidence in her abilities — a real boon when she decided to study engineering.

Years later, Brooks and business partner Bettina Chen are manufacturing Roominate, a building kit for girls that allows them to create anything they can imagine, from dollhouses to farm animals.

Brooks and Chen are among thousands of people who are part of the “Maker Movement,” an energetic and creative groundswell that ties folks together in pursuit of creativity, individual passions and the magic that inventing brings to life. “Making” or "hacking" — the terms are used fairly interchangeably — are celebrated with expos, open laboratory sessions, achievement badges for little makers, TED Talks for the entrepreneurial, articles, blogs and more. Companies are jumping in with a new raft of toys that offer hints — but not instructions — leaving children free to decide what to build or do.

Think of it as “do-it-yourself” meets STEM, the national push for excellence in science, technology, engineering and math. Add in the arts, as many makers and hackers do, and you have STEAM.

Then you’re really cooking.

Old and new

The Maker Movement, as it’s known today, formally began in 2005 with Make magazine, according to Thanasi Glavas, vice president of Change Hive in San Diego. The concept’s heart started beating, though, even before toys like Legos and Erector Sets encouraged kids to build whatever they could conceptualize. Magazine founder Dale Dougherty felt passionate about it, greatly boosting interest, said Glavas, a longtime maker who also organizes local maker expos.

Then computers unleashed a world of possibility on which individuals and companies began to build. Take a CNC machine — a grid with a router and a computer working together. Its dull spelled-out name, computer numerical coding, hides the fact that kids in math, computing and woodworking classes can calculate and craft even ornate objects with a precision that would be impossible otherwise.

In a maker world, everyone has the potential to be a fabricator, from the little girls who learn to solder their lighted sculptures at an Oakland, California, lab sponsored by Curiosity Hacked, to the older, adult crowd that concocted a gigantic fire-breathing octopus at a Burning Man gathering in the Nevada desert, where many iconic maker projects originate.

Makers or hackers adopt technology that was once the currency of the highly trained expert and render it a plaything of — well, anybody. Recent innovations like 3-D printers, Glavas said, mean anyone can turn ideas into objects immediately if they have the right equipment. And that is becoming more readily available as printer prices go down. A kid can dream up, draw and print a tiger-elephant. A baker can print a confection flower.

"Art is what drives making for me," Glavas said. "It's the freedom to tap into your imagination."

He believes creativity will matter for renewable energy, community development and more. It's an "evolution of our society toward better ideas and a more holistic approach to the problems we face," he said.

It also makes tasks hands-on and exciting, and even fun: "It's being applied to everything from urban development to retail design," Glavas said.

Building toys with no real goal

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