The magic of making

In the most interesting presentation I attended yesterday at SXSWedu, Dale Dougherty made an impassioned and convincing case for informal learning, particularly in the form of “maker education.” The conference so far has been heavy on presentations promoting digital technologies and their many uses in education, and while I am all for using the latest tools when they can help meet the needs of learners, I will admit that it felt like a breath of fresh air to hear about kids in schools and other settings making real, physical things with their own hands.

Dougherty is the founding editor and publisher of MAKE Magazine and co-creator of Maker Faire, the “Greatest Show and Tell on Earth,” which began in the California Bay Area in 2006. Last spring he helped launch the Maker Education Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to nurturing “a new generation of ‘makers’ who are creative, innovative, and curious.” He is also one of the leaders of Makerspace, which helps and encourages people to establish dedicated spaces for making in their schools, libraries, and neighborhoods.

In his keynote address, “The Magic of Making: Engaging Students as Makers,” Dougherty described the future of education as “IFFY”: Informal, involving Friends and Family, and centered on You and your goals. Making is by nature IFFY, he said, and when schools devote space, time, and resources to open-ended, project-oriented making of all kinds, they transform themselves into the centers of authentic learning that our communities desperately need. Projects like these provide the most natural and effective kind of learning assessment: students have tangible products they can show and stories they can tell about the problem-solving, design, and building process. One of Dougherty’s current goals is to “scale up” the creation of Makerspaces and maker programs to give all kids, at every socioeconomic level and in every community large or small, the chance to discover that they, too, are makers.

Later, Dougherty joined the local maker community for an interactive evening cohosted by the Austin Hardware Startup Meetup and Austin Mini Maker Faire at Capital Factory, a tech startup incubator, accelerator, and coworking space in downtown Austin. To a standing-room-only crowd filled with representatives of ATX Hackerspace, Round Rock’s TechShop, San Antonio’s Geekdom, and other Central Texas maker organizations and individuals, Dougherty spoke of Maker Faire’s success in bringing together people who do very different things (e.g., embroiderers, robot builders, kombucha brewers) who don’t necessarily know each other or believe they have anything in common. It also “flushes people out of their basements and garages,” where they have been pursuing their passions in isolation, and helps them share their skills and joy in making with other makers and the world.

Following Dougherty’s informal talk, he engaged audience members in a lively conversation about ways to strengthen, expand, and diversify the Austin maker community. Suggestions included developing networks of mentors and designing maker spaces to be friendlier to women and others not traditionally comfortable in these kinds of places. Dougherty emphasized summer camps as opportunities to practice maker education in less restrictive conditions than most schools can provide and encouraged camp directors to network with each other to establish as many maker experiences as possible for kids in Austin and beyond.

In wrapping up, Dougherty encouraged everyone to get involved in and help spread the word about this year’s Austin Mini Maker Faire, which takes place May 5 at the Palmer Events Center. Faire producer Kami Wilt announced that the Call for Makers is open through March 15 and that earlybird tickets are already on sale. Sponsorships are available at various levels. Alt Ed Austin is a proud sponsor of this all-ages, homegrown event, and I invite you to join us there to experience the magic of making.