What is a “wicked” problem?


Wicked Workshop is a maker-based experience that introduces youth to architecture through reality-based projects that tackle "wicked" problems such as inadequate housing and environmental health. The workshops are led by today’s guest contributor, Phyllis Henderson (Fifi), a parent of two with a 20+ year background in architecture, design, teaching, and research focused on the human experience of the built environment and nature.

What is a “wicked” problem?

A wicked problem is one that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Wickedness isn’t a degree of difficulty. Wicked issues are different because traditional processes can’t resolve them. A wicked problem has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn’t have one right answer. Environmental degradation, homelessness, and poverty are classic examples of wicked problems. They’re the opposite of hard but ordinary problems, which people can solve in a finite period by applying standard techniques. Not only do conventional processes fail to tackle wicked problems, but they also may exacerbate situations by generating undesirable consequences.

What are we doing?

We offer a K–12 maker program that introduces decision-making strategies for complex problem solving and critical thinking opportunities that are recognized as vital 21st-century skills necessary to succeed in work, life, and citizenship.  We do this through a straightforward hands-on curriculum that incrementally introduces materials and methods of construction, environmental and climate considerations, and cultures from around the globe. Students achieve global education, civic literacy, and advocacy while practicing adaptability, self-direction, collaboration, and leadership.

How do we do it?

We approach a wicked problem such as inadequate housing by first introducing a house from a particular culture. Students learn about structure, materials, construction, society, culture, environment, geography, and geometry through drawing and making. For example, for the Tatami House, we will visit Japanese culture and wood construction; for the Toltec Clay House we look at clay/mud and straw structures and Central African cultures. Students then apply their knowledge to design and construct their own iteration (or several iterations) that will ultimately be placed within a community setting and address the wicked problem.  This basic structure gives us ample opportunity to explore issues of citizenship and community while maintaining personalization and individual growth.


Why do we do it?

The positive implications and opportunities of the Wicked Workshop are far reaching for education and society. Students learn about partnerships and the value of collaboration as we directly engage community experts who are themselves working on wicked problems.  Students will present their work in a casual gallery setting for friendly constructive critique, suggestions for next steps, and how their ideas translate to real-world civic applications or possible service opportunities.

Will this be too complex for my Kindergartener or too simple for my 12th grader?

Not at all!  This program is designed to be open-ended to support learners at varying levels of maturity. We bring big ideas to a younger audience in a makerspace environment that is friendly and stress-free.  We encourage independent thinking, self-directed learning, exploration, iteration, and creativity.  We ask thinkers to make and makers to think through safe exploration where there are no wrong answers. We layer technical information in a makerspace way—through building, drawing, and talking about our ideas. For example, when we introduce inadequate housing to Kindergarteners (a wicked problem), we might talk about a fallen bird house or a fairy garden without proper water supply. For older students, we might look at the Tiny House Community (Community First! Village) in Austin and explore more complex urban density concepts.


Why such “big problems”?  My child likes crafts and making things but doesn’t want more “school” after school.

Neither do we! We are motivated toward making and tinkering. We will be making models, drawings, books, board games, cities, animal habitats, and more as we explore all aspects of the built environment.  When we find surprises in our research, we will explore them through making. “Big problems” serve as the real-world framework to guide decision-making and introduce the concept of civic responsibility and societal engagement—a role often played by the architect. We’re not planning to solve the world’s problems; however, big problems bring big ideas, and kids are capable of incredible things when given adequate time and space.  The goal of the studio workshop is to encourage each student to develop a process for making decisions (big and small) and to cultivate a level of comfort for giving and accepting criticism in an environment of self-discovery and thoughtful guidance.

Where did the idea for Wicked Workshop come from, and who’s teaching it?

My name is Phyllis Henderson, but I am called by my nickname “Fifi.” I’m a mom to two active girls, an architect, and an educator.  As a mom, I spend a lot of time looking for opportunities for my girls to build self-esteem, independence, and critical thinking skills.  As an educator with a PhD in architectural history and theory, I recognized that Design Thinking was being used outside of professional design practice to help resolve issues in multiple industries, including business and societal sectors.  Design Thinking is a non-linear, strategy-based process for problem solving that tackles issues through empathy and iterative hands-on making. It was developed by Stanford University’s “d” school for people in business, higher education, the public sector, and K–12 education as a process to create real change. As an architect, I practiced this methodology as a direct extension of my traditional university architecture school curriculum and decided to scale that learning experience for a younger audience.

Working with kids on big problems has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career, and I am energized by the ideas, dynamism, and joy that kids bring to wicked problems. I’m looking forward to another year of amazing kids who tackle wicked problems!

Phyllis Henderson

One good question with Mike DeGraff

An iconic scene from the award-winning film  Most Likely to Succeed

An iconic scene from the award-winning film Most Likely to Succeed

We’re pleased to reproduce here an interview with Mike DeGraff from Rhonda Broussard’s excellent blog One Good Question. Reading Mike’s thoughts on maker education will help prepare you for the mind- blowing, award-winning film Most Likely to Succeed, which you can view and discuss with Mike and others Tuesday, March 8, at 6pm at the North Door. Read more about the film and event at the end of the interview.

Mike DeGraff, educator’s educator and thought leader

Michael DeGraff is the Instructional Program Coordinator at the UTeach Institute. His work includes coordinating the Instruction Program Review process for all UTeach Partner Sites as well as supporting instructors to implement the nine UTeach courses. Michael has been a part of UTeach since 2001, first as an undergraduate student at UT Austin (BA Mathematics with Secondary Teaching Option, 2005), then as a graduate student (MA Mathematics Education, 2007), and finally as a Master Teacher with UKanTeach at the University of Kansas. He was also instrumental in launching Austin Maker Education.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

There was a call for 100,000 STEM teachers in the US, and since then there have been tons of initiatives, and related funding, to respond to the need (some say too much). UTEACH is a very constructivist- oriented teacher education program for STEM teachers that began at UT Austin and has spread across the country. Then we saw the launch of Maker Faire™ to showcase STEAM design in informal learning space. When I went to my first faire 3-4 years ago, I was amazed at how well it fit into what I understood about constructivist education.  I was also amazed that there wasn’t tighter articulation between schools, teacher education programs, and what’s going on in this sector.

In schools, "making" is mostly robotics, especially at the secondary level. School libraries may have makerspaces that are more diverse, but there’s very little happening in teacher preparation for how we prepare teachers for these spaces that are proliferating. No two people have the same vision for what you mean when you say makerspace. Whenever you talk about this, it’s so easy to get excited about the 3D printer, laser cutter and other specific tools. At UTeach, we’re more interested in how it transforms what kids are able to do and how teachers are empowered to teach differently. Not to dismiss the tools, but ultimately, what’s so exciting about all of this stuff is how it connects to this lineage of progressive education dating back to Dewey and meaningful, authentic, relevant work. That’s what’s so powerful to me about this whole maker movement. It really champions student voice in a way that I don’t see in any other movement/innovation/fad. How can we replicate that for every kid? One of the biggest hurdles in education and industry is to get kids curious. Makerspaces can get them to a point where they can start wondering.

The maker world and project-based formal education don’t seem to respect each other enough. The maker world is super auto-didactic, self-sufficient, DIY, vibrant, and very curious. The maker world sentiment is that schools are going to destroy the maker movement by embracing it and standardizing it. It’s not an unfounded fear. Look at the computer labs in the 90s. The way that education works is in compartmentalizing. My biggest fear is that it becomes a space where you go and do « making » for an hour completely separated from (or only superficially connected to) science, math, language arts, literature, art, etc.

The formal education world is coming from a perspective that we’ve been doing « making » well before Maker Faire started in 2006, but have called it other things like project-based instruction. Colleges of Education see the value in makerspaces, but in public education we have to focus on serving every kid.

While the Maker Education Initiative motto is « every kid a maker » colleges of education and educators in general are asking what do we do with kids who aren’t motivated by blinking a light or don’t identify with the notion of making? How does PD play out in these different areas, and what does it look like as these spaces develop?

Do you think that schools/universities would be adopting makerspaces if they weren’t tied to funding?

These spaces have always existed in universities, but they used to be highly articulated with coursework.

« Making » in a university is usually housed in the college of engineering, which makes sense for digital fabrication and electronics. You were typically a junior before you got to that level of coursework and only accessed the equipment for specific, course related projects. If you talk to industry, a big complaint is that universities are producing engineering graduates who can calculate, but can’t use a screwdriver and a hammer or connect that academic experience to the real world.

A makerspace is more similar to a library type model so it’s open and you can go in and make when/what you want. UT opened a Longhorn Maker Studio and when I went there in November it was full of kids making Christmas presents (like ornaments, a picture frame, and other highly personal artifacts). There are a lot of class projects, but it’s more about figuring out what they can do with it.  That’s what’s exciting.

Something that I see as very similar to the makerspace idea in the College of Science is open inquiry where students choose what they want to learn more about, design an experiment, and analyze results. In UTeach, one of the nine courses is totally dedicated to this process. Instructors have noticed that the hardest part of the process is to get students to become curious. Get students to develop their own questions that can be addressed by experiments. In education, we have identified content, but the gap is how we inspire students to be curious and engaged and motivated and passionate. It’s so well connected in general to how we get students to think and be self-motivated and have internal drive.

One could argue that makerspaces are going the way of MOOCs—only reinforcing the privilege and access of middle-class paradigms and still largely unused in lower-income/marginalized communities. If we really believe that makerspaces improve creativity, critical thinking, and STEM, what will it take for the movement to reach a more diverse audience?

Why I see maker movement as being fundamentally different, is that I see it as hitting on different things, namely on student motivation and constructivist education, with what we know about how students learn best, project-based instruction, and the evolution of progressive education. At the UTeach conference last May, we had several sessions about making in the classroom. It’s important for us is to embed this into regular coursework. Right now, a lot of the robotics and electives are afterschool activities, but in order for this to be truly democratized, we have to make it part of our classes—science and math that every kid takes.  NGSS and CCSS math standards demonstrate value for persistent problem solvers, design cycle, and implementing inquiry. Makerspaces can support these standards for all students.

As part of the maker strand at our UTeach conference Leah Buechley gave the plenary talk contrasting mainstream maker approaches with tools and techniques designed to support diversity and equality.” This is exactly why we, in education, need to systematically develop opportunities around « making » for a more diverse population, which early indications show is working. We’re already seeing that the demographics of youth serving maker spaces are much more diverse than that of Maker Faire.

Mike’s One Good Question: How can we use this space to address community needs? What we’re doing is making things, but why are we making them?

Here’s a special invitation from Mike to join him and other education thinkers and doers for a special screening of Most Likely to Succeed:

Please join us on Tuesday, March 8th, to discuss our schools, what we want them to look like, and how we can work together to meet the changing needs of our global society. Doors open at 5:30pm, special guest ¡Oh Antonio + His Imaginary Friends! will play from 6:00 to 6:30pm, and the movie starts at 6:45pm followed by a discussion and Q&A. Since the movie is about innovation in education, we are excited to be able to help Travis High School in developing its own makerspace and innovation. All proceeds from the screening will go directly to support providing resources for the space and teacher training related to those tools. Reserve your ticket here.

About the movie: For most of the last century, entry-level jobs were plentiful, and college was an affordable path to a fulfilling career. That world no longer exists. The feature-length documentary Most Likely to Succeed examines the history of education, revealing the growing shortcomings of our school model in todayʼs innovative world. Directed by acclaimed documentarian Greg Whiteley, the film has been named “among the best edu-documentaries ever produced” by Education Week.
See more at http://mltsfilm.org.

Learn, teach, make: Education at Austin Mini Maker Faire 2015

Emily Weerts directs the Nucleus Learning Network, an organization that empowers learners, educators, and mentors to enhance Austin’s innovative learning community. She stopped by the blog this week to give us a preview of the Maker Education Village she’s coordinating at this year’s Austin Mini Maker Faire, which is shaping up to be the biggest and best yet.

In the handful of years since Maker Faire first came to Austin, we’ve seen the event change and grow in many exciting ways. As the list of participating makers expands, one trend that we’re happy to embrace is the notable increase in education-focused makers, booths, and presenters.

Making and learning are natural partners: making provides opportunities to develop confidence; increase creativity; explore science, math, and art in new ways; and investigate engineering and technology. This year’s Faire features booths from makerspaces at libraries, organizations that teach computer programming to elementary students, and Austin Community College’s new maker program. From pre-K through college and beyond, makers, learners, and teachers will come together on May 16 and 17 to share their skills, ask great questions, and forge new friendships. 

This year’s Maker Education Village is being sponsored by WonderLab, a membership-based, supplemental learning lab for children in upper elementary and middle school. Thanks to WonderLab’s generous contribution, we are able to expand the Maker Ed Lounge and run a Maker Ed Stage at this year’s Faire. Check out the Maker Ed program (below) and join us for some inspiring workshops, stimulating discussion panels, and engaging networking. Alt Ed Austin is supporting this year’s Maker Ed Stage, and Nucleus Learning Network is coordinating the Maker Ed Lounge. 

As always, Maker Faire is free for educators to attend! Tell the teachers in your lives to come to the Palmer Events Center on May 16 and 17 to learn and be inspired. To receive free admission, teachers must bring a school ID or present other proof that they are an educator at the box office. 

Maker Education Schedule: SATURDAY



Maker Education Schedule: SUNDAY

Emily Weerts

The Austin Maker Ed Meetup

Mike DeGraff is a former high school math teacher currently working with secondary STEM teacher programs across the country as part of the UTeach Institute. He is passionate about education and extremely interested in the role of the emerging maker culture in schools. As a new guest contributor, Mike is here to invite Alt Ed Austin’s readers to the first in a series of Maker Ed Meetups on Wednesday, August 6, 7–9pm at the TechShop in Round Rock. Join the group and RSVP for the event on the Meetup page.

Making, the heart of the growing “maker movement,” has become one of the most exciting developments in education. You could barely attend a session at last year’s SXSWedu conference without hearing about it. Even the White House is into it.

Part of what makes it exciting is that making is so accessible and is starting to happen everywhere. Right now, for example, Make magazine and Google + are hosting the third annual virtual Maker Camp (July 7–August 15), where anyone with a computer or access to a library can participate in making cool stuff. According to the Maker Camp FAQ, “many of the materials you need for the projects are likely already available in your home.” This means we’re not talking about projects that need to be done at a place like TechShop with extensive equipment.

Speaking of TechShop, it is AWESOME! If you are an educator, you should seriously check it out. It has the tools for you to build anything you can imagine (even battery-operated human exoskeletons).

In fact, you should make plans to be there Wednesday, August 6, at 7pm for the very first Austin Maker Ed Meetup. There will be amazing maker educators showing off super cool stuff like the MaKey MaKey (banana piano? why yes!), stop-motion animation, and a mini nerdy derby. It’s open to makers, educators, and anyone else interested in this movement.

The Austin Maker Ed Meetup is a result of my interest, and then immersion, in maker culture over the past few years. I am a former high school math teacher with an interest in project-based/inquiry-based/constructivist approaches to education. As I got into maker culture, I found that it resonated with my understanding of and beliefs around how people learn and how schools can support hands-on learning.

I finally jumped in with both feet after attending the World’s Maker Faire 2013 in New York City. I saw a lot of people already making explicit connections between education and the maker movement, most notably the Maker Education Initiative (launched in 2012) and the associated space at the Faire dedicated to these efforts.

I came back from that event eager to get involved with the maker education activities in Austin, but I wasn’t sure how. So in true maker fashion, I began doing instead of just reading and thinking. I reached out to the maker organizations in Austin, like the Thinkery, Austin Tinkering School, Austin Mini Maker Faire, TechShop, and others. Not surprisingly, maker folks were willing and excited to show me all the things they were doing in the realm of education.

We’ve met several times over the last year as a loose collection of people with a shared interest. And we put together an Educators’ Lounge at the Austin Mini Maker Faire last May, connecting with a ton of educators with similar interests. Lots of great discussions and connections took place, some prompted by open-ended questions we posted:

The meetup at TechShop is our effort to continue those discussions and strengthen the connections between makers and educators. We’ll have cool stuff to share and do, with the hope that educators will be introduced to new ideas that can have a positive impact in their classrooms. However, the power of this group will not be what it shows educators, but in the exploration and connection between two overlapping groups: makers and educators. What making looks like in our schools is just now entering the national education discussion, so there’s plenty of room for experimentation and innovation.

A lot of this national discussion is about the specific tools and resources of the maker culture, such as 3D printing, CNC machines, laser cutters, and other innovative technology. I think all of this stuff is worth the discussion; it’s amazing. But what excites me most is not the flashy new tech, but the connections to the progressive education movement, which has been around since the late 19th century, and other current research-based practices. Some examples include an emphasis on understanding over rote knowledge, a focus on critical thinking, learning by doing, and personalized education based on students’ individual interests.

The tech will come and go (and hopefully come again after kids destroy and rebuild it into new stuff), but this approach to learning seems much more accessible, targeted, and individualized. I hope it will prove to be the most influential aspect of the maker movement on education.

Mike DeGraff

Alt Ed Austin meets the Typewriter Rodeo

One of the most beloved features of the Austin Mini Maker Faire last weekend was the Typewriter Rodeo, a group of Austin writers who create custom poetry on demand using vintage typewriters. I spent most of the day outside in the Maker Ed tents, but late in the afternoon I slipped into the Expo Center Arena and got in line for a poem of my own.

When it was my turn, I found myself in front of Kate Payne, a freelance writer, popular blogger, educator, and author of two lovely and extremely handy books: The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking (2011) and The Hip Girl’s Guide to the Kitchen (2014). When Kate asked me for a topic, I said, predictably, “Alternative education—you know, like, different ways of learning.” (Sometimes I have to do a little explaining. In Kate's case, it turned out to be unnecessary; she knew exactly what I meant.) Four or five minutes later, she handed me this:


Exactly! Thanks, Kate and Typewriter Rodeo; you lassoed it. I’m putting this on my office wall—sharing what I love.


Maker Ed awesomeness at the Austin Mini Maker Faire

Giveaway alert: A family pack of Austin Mini Maker Faire passes is up for grabs, plus free tickets for professional educators and a special discount code for homeschoolers! Read on.

I love the theme of this year’s Austin Mini Maker Faire, as expressed in the beautiful posters designed by Kat Townsend: We are all makers. Even more exciting for me (and the reason Alt Ed Austin is a proud sponsor of AMMF 2014) is its brilliant demonstration of another theme: We are all learners. We are all teachers.

Underlying its well-deserved reputation for outlandish fun in the tech, craft, art, robotics, and sustainability arenas, the heart of Austin’s annual maker extravaganza is education. At a time when our traditional school systems are deep in crisis, the Faire serves as a showcase for learning experiences as they should be: hands-on, interdisciplinary, learner directed, multi-age, naturally engaging, noncompetitive, playful, and focused on using critical thinking skills and imagination to address real-world problems.

With the generous support of our special area sponsor, WonderLab, we have expanded the Maker Ed section of the Faire in a big way and added some extra perks for educators. Here’s what’s in store:

Free admission for professional educators! Just show some proof that you are an educator at check-in. 

Special 20% discount for homeschooling families. Buy your adult and child tickets in advance using this code: AHS20OFF 

Educators’ Lounge. This year we’re giving teachers and other education professionals a comfy place at the Faire to take a break and meet new colleagues. We’ll also facilitate some quick and fun ways for educators to trade ideas about incorporating making into their learning environments and overcoming maker ed challenges. As a thank-you for participating in the Lounge, we’ll have some great teacher-oriented swag bags. Many thanks to supervolunteers Mike DeGraff, Claudia Pepper, and Laura Minnigerode and these sponsors for making all of this happen: Five Elements Furniture, SparkFun, Texas Instruments, and UTeach.

Three huge tents devoted to Maker Ed. Fairegoers will experience a dizzying array of hands-on activities and demonstrations presented by schools and other educational programs from pre-K through college levels. Anchored by AMMF sponsor Skybridge Academy, these edu-makers will give Fairegoers opportunities to sharpen their wilderness survival skills, practice the fine art of bubble making, learn how a couple of local high school kids have built a 3D printer, and much, much more. 

More edu-awesomeness outside the Maker Ed tents. Some of our event sponsors are bringing exhibits and activities so big they’ve claimed their own chunk of AMMF real estate:

  • In the ever-popular Austin Tinkering School pavilion, kids can make their own racecars and try their luck in the Nerdy Derby, or hang out in the Open Shop, deconstructing electronics and creating their own marvels with all kinds of interesting building materials.
  • The Thinkery’s Kid Zone will offer multiple STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) activities for young makers. Its hand-built trebuchet will be flinging things the old-fashioned way throughout the day.
  • On the outdoor stage, kids of all ages will be amazed and edified by the Mad Science show. Grownups will learn to safely wow their friends and enemies with the fiery arts at Tim Deagan’s Propane 101 for Artists and Makers. And everyone, I mean everyone, will have a blast at Steve Wolf’s multi-award-winning Science in the Movies show. Check out the performance schedule and plan your day at the Faire!
  • Inside the Expo Center arena, beyond the planetarium, aerial dancers, and the gajillion fascinating craft, tech, and arts exhibits, you’ll find a workshop space where you can learn to program a Raspberry Pi, ferment your own vinegar from table scraps, make a perfect hula-hoop, or turn your small business dreams into reality. Reserve your space in a workshop today!

This is only the tip of the iceberg, people. I’ve highlighted the overtly educational features of the Faire, but no matter how you choose to spend your time at AMMF, you’ll learn something. Jump off a tower into a giant marshmallow with the Stunt Ranch crew, find out how an intrepid professor is sustainably living in a dumpster for a year, or pedal like you’ve never pedaled before at the Austin Bike Zoo’s Interactive Wonderland and Carnival. I guarantee you’ll come away with that unmistakable feeling that we are all learners, we are all teachers. And for sure, we are all makers.


You have a bunch of ways to enter this random drawing, with up to 10 chances to win an AMMF family pack of 2 adult and 2 child passes. If you’ve already bought your tickets, be sure to let your friends know about this opportunity to attend the Austin Mini Maker Faire for free! Enter by midnight Thursday, May 1, and we’ll announce the lucky winner right here in a blog update on Friday morning. Good luck! 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

UPDATE: Congratulations to giveaway winner Suzanne H.! We look forward to seeing you and your family on Saturday. And thanks to everyone who entered the drawing. You can still buy discounted AMMF tickets in advance (through 10am Saturday) here.