I remember a time not so long ago when my mailbox, my inbox, my kids’ (dreaded-to-parents) homework folders, school newsletters, and teacher communications seemed to bombard me with advertisements for the latest-and-greatest science and technology camps, after-school programs, and community clubs. Purportedly, these camps, programs, and clubs provided learning-focused, age-appropriate, hands-on experiences that would introduce my kids to new subjects, boost existing interests, strengthen social skills, coincide with school curricula, and emphasize STEM subjects. What’s more, they promised fun and excitement that would not only inspire my kids, but help them develop a lifelong love of learning, do better in school, and discover passions.
Many of these sounded so engaging that, heck, I wanted to attend!
One year, my kids attended space camp. Another year, they attended computer programming camp, followed by photography camp. Another time, they attended an after-school science club; however, I think that was because my daughter’s friend was attending, not because either of my kids was really interested in the particular science topics or activities. And, while these camps were indeed fun and educational, most of the time, our discussions about their day at camp would focus on wanting a chewy granola bar instead of yogurt in the next day’s lunch, needing an extra $10 for the camp T-shirt, or one tattling on the other about some such perceived injustice.
There’s a few things that these camps and programs got right: Hands-on, experiential learning, as well as exposure to a wide variety of potential interest areas. In hindsight, though, there were so many things completely unrelated to those experiences that fostered their love of learning, science, and technology. Perhaps most important were the grownups with expertise who were willing to spend their time sharing their know-how, not just once, but for as long as the kids’ were interested (and even beyond, to see them through lulls). We had a running joke with a neighbor who mentored my kids through various projects that, if his garage door was open, he was available to come out and “play.”
Long-term projects were also key: Ones that required the kids to think big and that required planning, making, troubleshooting, redoing (and troubleshooting and redoing), and reflecting were most valuable. The length of time was not as important as providing enough time and unfettered thought-space to imagine and do and reflect. The project itself was also not as important as it being a journey of solving problems along the way. The teeter-totter my kids designed and built together in elementary school comes to mind, as does my daughter’s solar-powered doghouse and my son’s soccer ball launcher projects in middle school, as helping inspire their maker minds.
Available resources were also key. As a 5th grader, for example, my daughter was particularly interested in anatomy, so we ordered a cow heart, dissection tools, and dissection safety equipment…and then spent the next few weeks dissecting, labeling, and documenting the project. Who knew I could go online, buy a cow organ, and have it delivered to my house? Who knew I could specify a particular cow organ and buy one that had been prepared specifically for the purpose of dissection? And who knew that this project, which stank up the kitchen and filled up the freezer for nearly a month, would be perhaps the seed that started my daughter’s interest in science and chemistry?
Mouser Electronics was actually founded on this very concept: Making individual components available to students, teachers, makers, tinkerers, hobbyists, and the like. Back in 1964, physics teacher Jerry Mouser wanted to provide students with the components needed to make and build and experiment—to provide hands-on, experiential learning opportunities. Because electronic components were only available in bulk at the time, he’d buy them en masse, bring to class what was needed for his students, and kept the rest in his garage. Eventually, he started selling the leftover components to other teachers who also needed just a single resistor or a handful of diodes to create hands-on opportunities in the classroom.
Of course, many people, programs, and opportunities contribute to the making of makers, no matter if the interest is science or technology or a blend of oh-so-many possibilities. What makes a maker? And how do we nurture budding makers? Share your stories in the comments!
Deborah Ray joined Mouser in early 2017 as Executive Editor of Technical Publications, bringing more than 20 years of experience in technical publishing. As an author, she has coauthored more than 20 computer books, has published a dozen journal articles, and previously authored two nationally syndicated newspaper columns. Deborah spent 11 years as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TECHWR-L Magazine, the oldest and one of the largest online publications for technical communicators worldwide. As an educator, Deborah has taught graduate courses in technical communication at three universities, as well as undergraduate engineering communications courses, in traditional, online, and broadcast classrooms. She currently serves on the editorial board of directors for IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication.
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