Monday, January 25, 2016

From a construction site to makerspaces

Me playing with a bucket – Malchen, Germany 
From as long as I can remember, the construction site for the renovation of my parent's turn of the century German timer framed house was my playground. There, the piled up wooden planks formed serendipitous caves that became imaginative make-shift shelters. Plastic buckets filled with water, sand, or scrap materials became rhythmical instruments. The stumbled upon crooked nails and hand tools became ways for building remote controls for communicating with outer space.

The construction site, what later became the yard of the house, was a ground for endless journeys of imagination and seems to have been the headquarters for planning adventures among the neighboring children and me. From here, we set off to the nearby forrest to concur the fleets of foreign waters that were represented by the trees a hurricane caused to fall and shuffle one on top of the other. While perhaps the stuff of nightmares for a caring parent, one of the greatest adventures of my earlier years was setting off with a group of friends to the other side of the village to slide down the sand dunes of a large scale construction site. 

Besides imaginative, adventurous explorations and serving as a space for connecting with others, the site allowed me to find my play space within the larger context of an adult construction site. I learned how to differentiate adult tools, such as buzz saws and cement machines, from more child-friendly materials, such as buckets, water, and sawdust. I was tasked with important decisions, such as seemingly selecting the color of the plaster of the house.

It is challenging to pin point in a few sentences what made the construction site special to me, how it conditioned my learning trajectory, personal development, the way I am or going to be. What I know is that the experience of growing up in this unique environment was particular. The opportunity to try myself out, to connect to others, to use as a jumping off point for developing ideas, to truly listen to the oddities of materials are things I am truly grateful for. The creative play I was able to experience perhaps inspired my love to exploring new things, taking off for new challenges, setting my own goals, and perhaps even conditioned my interest in making to learn. I believe the site gave me the chance to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, being at home in makeshift environments, and to see the potential of the unfinished.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Learning in Action at the Make Innovate Learn Lab (MILL)

The right and the left side of the Make Innovate Learn Lab (MILL)

The Make Innovate Learn Lab (MILL) is a makerspaces in the School of Education at Indiana University that recently opened its doors to students, staff, faculty and anyone interested in exploring learning through making. The MILL is located in the second floor of the Wright Education building on campus, on the far end of the corridor that is right to the graduate office. With all glass walls transparently displaying the colorful materials and high- and low-tech tools, the sun-lit space starkly contrasts to the gray walls and closed doors of the rooms that lay in close vicinity. 
The walls that formally separated two classrooms were torn down to create the long rectangular space that is now the MILL. The entrance to the space faces a carmine colored pillar that visually remind of the walls that once separated the space. The pillar, featuring a MILL logo humbly constructed from cardboard and pegboard with space for storage, visually and rhythmically divides the space into two main areas that are approximately of the equal size.
To the right side of the door, 3D prints and toy-hacks are facing out into the hallway through the glass wall. In front of the wall also parks a cart that holds a screen for sharing projects and a whiteboard jotting down project ideas. At the far end of the room is a sideboard that holds four 3D printers. When I am in the space, they are cheerfully buzzing in their high-pitch low-pitch ways, finishing to print what seems to me a larger scale project. Above the printers, pegboard lines the wall with storage spaces for 3D printer filament and tools, presenting a colorful conglomerate of possibilities for making. While on the outside, red on the inside, below the sideboard are mobile storage carts that can be pulled out and re-purposed for additional workspace. The natural daylight makes the colors of the tape, thread, beads, and bins of toys shine brighter than a rainbow. They are positions between the two windows of the space. Cardboard boxes are lining the floor at the left most corner of the right side of the space. A note with a smiley face suggests that the boxes are saved for a project. Electrical plugs dangle from the ceiling, conveniently just about the workshop table that is filled with plastic wrapper, aluminum foil, play-dough, and boxes filled with blue and magenta colored kinetic sand.

Left to the carmine colored pillar is another mobile storage unit, stocked with projects in progress and books on gaming. Next to the cart are two cushioned armchairs that call for hanging out and chatting about projects. The left side of the room seemingly mirrors the right side. The wall between the windows here is also furnished with pegboard. However, different tools adorn this wall, including a clock. Also chairs are stacked up here, and e-fashion projects are presented in front of them. The sideboard hosts a sink and first aid kit, lots of workspace, and a computer to control the laser cutter that is positioned next to the glass wall on a mobile storage cart with vertical compartments for the laser cutter materials. The laser cutter is connected to a ventilation system, which, when turned on, can easily take over the auditory space of the left side of the room. Next to the laser cutter is a table that showcases diverse projects created with the laser cutter, and paper snowflakes representing patterns in the shape of popular media characters that were created with the laser cutter decorate the glass wall on this side of the space. In the center of this side of the space is a table with a paper-roller coaster model.
As my observations throughout the space continue, the division of the MILL space into two main areas as represented above does not hold up in practice. While we intentionally designed for this mobility, it is nice to see it happen in practice. To prepare the upcoming workshop, Justin moved the tables so as to leave room for exploring 3D printers, I re-purposed a cabinet into a rotating desk, one standing desk became the workshop table for a paper roller coaster model, and the sideboard area next to the sink was utilized for constructing the dinosaur model.
The idea of flexibility of the space was a code design principle that drove the design of the MILL space. This meant that furniture, materials, and tools would be (1) mobile to encourage movement and project driven arrangement of work spaces; (2) visible to support transparent access to materials and projects for making; (3) pliable to encourage changes in the space and to distribute understanding about making into the arrangement of the space. The design principle of flexibility was intended to break down barriers and thresholds for using the tools and materials of the MILL, to dream up projects, and to be inspired by materials. Taking a bath in the materials and riding their wave of creativity, was considered similar to the intuitive browsing of the Internet, letting one article lead to the next and the next and the next, without knowing where one will end up. For my observations at the makerspace, I particularly focused on projects and interests as well as implicit values of the learning community around the space.
Projects and Interests
A dinosaur model laser cut by Roosevelt

A Laser-Cut Dinosaur ModelAs I pass the first glass panels, the mentor of the space, Justin is working with Roosevelt  an Instructional Systems Technology (IST) doctoral student, at the laser cutter corner. Unlike my exception that Roosevelt created the model for an instructional design related to fossils, Justin clarifies that Roosevelt saw the physical model in the space a few days ago and wanted to recreate it for his personal pleasure. Roosevelt nodded and smiled. This was Roosevelt's first project with the laser cutter, and a way for him to learn how to use the tool by creating a project that he personally cared for. Roosevelt could re-create the dinosaur model by using the digital model of the project that was stored in the computer that was connected to the laser cutter. In the MILL, everyone who is laser cutting a project is requested to share a copy of their files to this folder. This creates a digital record of all the laser-cut project created at the MILL and allows anyone to appropriate and re-mix projects. Before departing, Roosevelt placed the cut-out pieces of a dinosaur model into a Ziploc bag. He is planning to assemble the project at home. What is left in the space are the outlines of the pieces in the plywood material on one of the mobile carts of the space. At closer look around this area, a second set of the dinosaur model lays disassembled next to the sink. Roosevelt and Justin cut out two projects, one for Roosevelt to take home, and one to remain in the MILL to inspire other makers. Justin explains that this is a common practice to provide tangible examples of what is possible to make for people who are not yet familiar with the high- and low-tech tools available in the space.

A 3D Printed Steady Cam As Justin is preparing the upcoming tour and workshop, Alice, an undergraduate student majoring in International Studies and minoring in Education, is entering the space, heading straight to the 3D printers. She collects prints from all three large 3D printers, and as she sits down at the table across from me, she explains that she will put the pieces together to create a steady cam case. Looking like she knows exactly what she is doing, she carefully removes the supporting structure the prints came with from each individual piece using a carpet knife and a cutting board. Alex tells me about the high price for store bought steady cams, and the benefits of her being able to use the 3D printer. For her, the benefits are not just economically motivated, she also shares her excitement about learning to use the technology and being part of a community that re-mixes and appropriates materials and artifacts. 
Alice: Is there a way to reuse some of the mis-prints? 
Justin: Yes, there are some people that are looking into remaking them into filament, but we have not really thought about that yet. 
Going into technical details, Justin explained that one of the pieces of Alice's steady cam project did not print properly. He offers to reprint that piece. Since the 3D printer takes long to print the missing piece, they agree that Alice will come back the next day to pick up her project. In the background the 3d printer sounds are filling the room, reprinting the piece, as she leaves the room. While Justin does not want the MILL to turn into a print shop, like the one available at the Indiana University Wells Library (URL), he tells me that he does want to facilitate people to get projects started. For example, when the tour and the workshop are about to start, Laura, another undergraduate student, entered the MILL to start a 3D print. Justin suggested for her to return another time as this would be the first time for Laura to use the 3D printer. Justin jots her name and the time she wants to return onto a sticky note and returns to preparing the workshop. 

A 3D printed spherical model

3D Printed Model of Energy Flow – As Henriette, the first workshop participants enters the space, she immediately sits down at the large table across from me. She starts to play with the Kinetic Sand that Justin played out for workshop participants. She inquires about a model she started printing in the space some time ago. Justin approaches the table with a bright orange spherical structure in his hand. The sphere has an inner and an outer spiral. Carefully, Henriette picks it up, bouncing and bending the model in her hand. Henriette explained that the orange sphere is for her Tai Chi instructor, and elaborated: 
Henriette: In Tai Chi when someone gives you a force you try to unbalance them. [This model] gives humans a visualization of movement and energy.
Similar to the way Roosevelt used the digital model someone else shared on the MILL laser cutter computer, Henriette downloaded the model from Thingyverse, an platform of makers to share their digital designs intended for 3D printing.

Anecdotal Maker Stories – As all three participants joined in and the tour of the space can begin, Justin invited the participants to take a look around. As they stop their explorations in front of the table that displays laser-cutter projects, Justin picks up a complicated looking geometrical structure, in which elliptical, flat shapes are hinged into another to create a three dimensional object. Justin is telling the story of the maker of the structure. 
Justin: This was made by an art education student who came in with a vision that he had in his head of making a construction since he has been in high school. Seeing the material was an important part of the making too.
This story highlighted the potential of the MILL to make complicated ideas a reality. He highlights the role of tinkering with tools and materials around an idea and how the tangible exploration of an idea can yield interesting results, as the construction. Attentively listening, this sparks a story in one of the workshop participants. The participants tells about creating a puppet of a mega pumpkin character that her son developed, and about how complicated it was to calculate the spherical shape of the character's head. This story highlights another dimension of making: material tinkering can represent the inherent complexities of seemingly simple surfaces and shapes. 

While these are only a few projects that I learned during a three hour stay at the MILL, the projects give testimony to the wide variety of projects created at the MILL that make use of the digital fabrication tools alone. Without having documented the kinds of projects that make use of materials at the intersection of high- and low-tech the three projects represent the potential of the space only 4 month into its inauguration. What is interesting is that the projects were based on personal interests, which is probably true for most of the projects created at the MILL. Roosevelt's project is for home use, perhaps to decorative purposes, Alice's project serves the purpose for creating video images that may facilitate the creation of other creative projects, Henriette's project is for instructional purposes, illustrating energy flow to her Tai Chi students, and the art education student realize a long-term vision. What stands out is that only the last project is directly connected to the makers' professional context, and that they were created based on individual interests rather than community or group interests. While the highlighted projects are not representative of all of the projects created at the MILL, they leaves me to wonder what kind of collaborative projects could be created for the MILL.
Learning Community and Values
While there is no official leadership hierarchy at the MILL, an implicit and informal understanding that those with experience of the tools can start working independently, while others need to go through training with Justin. His role of workshop facilitator is expanded into the role of a mentor and designer, helping people to get started with projects that help them learn how to use the tools, to facilitate continuous use, and to show off the possibilities of the space. The trajectories for leveling up in the space, e.g., from newcomer to independent MILL maker, are still forming and are beginning to formalize. For example, Justin recently created a sign that explains important items for successfully using the laser cutter, is in the process of developing a sign-up process, and is constantly thinking about the kinds of tools and materials needed in the space. Through my observations I observed other values that characterize how learning is facilitated at the MILL: 
  • The space is constantly changing – An initial look at the MILL space with its tools and materials suggests two distinct areas that may be shaped by the historic division of the space and the dominant digital fabrication tools positioned at opposite ends of the space (laser cutter and 3D printer). A closer observation of the space in use makes visible that there are no fixed areas and that makers make use of the flexibility that was designed into the space, its tools, and furniture. 
  • Projects define the spatial arrangement – As much as the space is in motion, projects suggest the way the space unfolds. While makers planfully arrange the space for their purposes (e.g., Justin placing Kinetic Sand onto tables) workstations also evolve through an expanding motion as projects progress (e.g., Roosevelt placing the second dinosaur model next to the sink), seemingly lagging just behind projects.
  • Remixing and appropriation are encouraged practices – The suggested norm of sharing digital and physical copies of projects is intended to inspire others to see what is possible with the digital fabrication tools and to easily recreate projects or build on previously done projects. This seems to reduce the threshold for getting started and to initiate a culture of sharing throughout the space.
  • Projects are interest-driven jumping off points – Small personally motivated projects like the 3D printed steady cam or the laser cut dinosaur model are ways for people to learn how to use the tools, to be empowered and inspired to come back and to make something else.
  • Distributed collaboration – Through the norm of sharing of digital files, tangible projects, and anecdotal maker stories in an effort to encourage making among visitors, a kind of collaboration is facilitated that is distributed across time and people. Rather than makers having to be in the space to share their creations, others can see and touch their creations and are presented with pathways to build on the work of others.
Design Ideas for the MILL
My observations at the MILL inspired a few ideas for the continues development of the makerspace:

Creating a community project for the MILL could be a way to bring collaborative making into the makerspace. The project could remain at the MILL and vvisualize the potential of the tools and demonstrate the vast variety of individual projects done at the space, further highlighting interest-driven, material-oriented, and distributed learning at the space.

Creating a simple entry survey to capture the initial motivations and exceptions of people to use the MILL that would be followed up with another survey to compare and contrast experiences. This could help capture learning stories that were ignited by the MILL. These kind of stories seem to be characteristically important for the makerspace, presented when sharing successes and failures of making. The stories can present valuable insight about future development of the space and the kinds of materials and tools to provide and stock up on. The entry survey could be expanded by a sign-in survey for capturing demographics and tracking usage of the space over time.

    Monday, January 18, 2016

    Learning by Loosely Joining Pieces

    Sometimes representations of how learning happens show different aspects of the phenomena of learning in concentric shapes with a strong emphasis on iteration and connections among aspects. In the photograph above, I illustrated learning by building on the metaphor of loosely joining pieces to represent an idea of learning that is makeshift, precarious, and highly idiosyncratic. Makeshift means that this idea of learning highlights flexibility to move things around. Precarious suggests that pieces are just holding together tight enough. Idiosyncratic refers to learning being unique for each person at a particular time, in a particular environment, and with particular people. This does not limit learning to happen within one person. Rather, the limited connections presented here, are intended to show that the flexible combination of pieces may bring about learning as distributed across people, materials, and contexts. More concretely, the photograph shows eight abstracted drawings that represent eight different pieces that I feel are important for learning. This is not an exhaustive list. Instead, I intended to provide examples of the kinds of pieces that may come together at once or through chained iteration to make learning happen. Here is a description of the illustrated pieces:

    • Diving In refers to stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, taking the risk and engaging with a material, a subject, a person etc. despite it being (a little or a lot) challenging. 
    • Feeling Out represents the idea of being there with or within the matter and sensing the objective, subjective, and normative circumstances.
    • Responding To is the act of engaging in dialogue and reacting to the context, mixing and appropriating ideas.
    • Untangling is the idea of making it possible to backtrack, to fix things, or making something undone. This is an important aspect, as it can help clarify what went wrong or what to do better next time, but it not always easily possible. 
    • Adapting To is a possibility for changing perspectives by staying open to possible other ways of doing and being. This gives the opportunity to see the word from a new point of view.
    • Playing With stands for the idea of messing around and engaging with materials, people, subjects and so on in humorous, joyous, and imaginative ways.
    • Doing It Again refers to repeating something that was learned in one context in the same of in a different context.
    It is possible that in any given learning situation only some of these pieces may apply, or that learning is initiated by a combination of the pieces at the same time. For example, while untangling the fiber threads of an electronic circuit, Laura adapted to the way the thread required pulling and repetition in order to make tight connections and light an LED. The pieces may also happen one after the other. For example after taking a chance by diving into dancing, Jebari listened to and responded to his partners’ movements. While these examples could be much improved through observations of learning happening in practice, what is important to me in the representation above is that the connections between pieces can be drawn by the learner or learners themselves. For me, it is important that learning always happens within a physical and social environment, and I consider the example pieces in relation to materials and people or other sentient beings.