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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

The first Maker Faire was held in 2006. In 2012, more than 120,000 people participated, and there are now "mini maker fairs" all over the country.

Around the same time, Curiosity Hacked started organizing, and by autumn 2012 it launched an open lab, inviting families to "make" with it. Within a short time, it had spawned 40 programs nationwide.

Participants at the lab, some as young as 4, can bring projects and get help from mentors or just see what materials are available.

Executive director Samantha Cook has issues with toys and programs that try to steer play in a particular direction. When there are directions, kids tend to follow them, she said, even if they're told they can use elements of the toy in other ways. So while mentors can help, children or families must decide themselves what they want to make.

Katie Rast runs the Fab Lab, short for fabrication lab, in San Diego. There are Fab Labs around the world that aim to get advanced technology — makers or hackers tend to use open-source technology and open-ended materials — into the hands of everyday people.

Makers are innovators, and innovation is good for communities, Rast said. Cities flourish economically if they are seen as a place where start-ups do well. She said when local mom-and-pop shops thrive, entire economies get a jump-start. Many makers are mom-and-pop enterprises.

Real meaning of "hacked"

Hacking takes making seriously.

"The term 'hacking' has a bad rap," says a note on Curiosity Hacked's website. "Unfortunately, there are some who associate the term with illegal activity. Hacking is simply taking something — like an object or idea — and changing it to fit one's own need. … We are taking back the word 'hacking'!"

Hackers come from different backgrounds. Curiosity Hacked co-founder Shoshana Abrass' interests were supported in her high school, and she became a computer engineer. Cook, her colleague, however, loved math and science and making until high school, "in which really sad teachers basically told me that's not something girls do. I was the only girl in the science club. I was tolerated but eventually left because I wasn't encouraged at all." She moved into writing and art — "also making, with no one telling me that was wrong."

Cook taught for years and then ran education programs in museums. She figured out what helps kids grow intellectually and socially. Often, education's structure has little to do with how children actually learn, she said, so she shifted efforts to grassroots nonprofits. She loved it. Cook and her husband had long been in the maker movement, but she noticed a lot of that, too, consisted of "take this kit and end up with a robot" — still a formula. It was better, but still about conformity, she said. The Cooks, Abrass and others set out to build a program that let kids meet their own needs and interests.

Some maker/hacker programs are gender-specific. Not Curiosity Hacked, the founders of which wanted boys and girls to work together and see each other as capable. They also wanted boys to see capable women mentors.

Starting young

The scope of hands-on labs is huge, particularly for girls, Cook said. Girls are often familiar with sewing or some art, so they may be drawn to portraiture class or printmaking, "choosing things that make them comfortable." Efforts to move them into electronics and circuitry might be abrupt for some, "and that's not the most compassionate way to do it; not really the best way for the brain" to learn new skills, Cook said.

So her lab might offer textile sewing, enhanced by LED embellishments and conductive thread. The lab has also offered the chance to make wire sculptures where the joints need soldering — terrifying at first, but soon the joints start looking pretty good. Two or three projects later, Cook said, girls may be comfortable using simple electronic kits to build whatever their imagination dictates.

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