Sometimes I worry we're becoming a culture of technology consumers, instead of creators. I don't expect everyone to be designing the next electric vehicle, killer tablet or even smartphone app or Web page, but I do like it when people -- especially children and teens -- are actively engaged in creating their own innovations.
It doesn't have to be complicated. It could be as simple as creating your own blog or posting impressive graphics on Pinterest or using some of your digital photographs to create a calendar or picture book. Even posting cool comments on Twitter or Facebook is an act of creation, if you put some thought into it.
One of the more encouraging signs is the "Maker Movement," which seems to be growing exponentially. Taking advantage of 3D printers, inexpensive microcontrollers, robotics, computer-aided design and the ability to control machines with computers, tablets and smartphones, more and more people are using technology to build things.
In May, I spent a fascinating day at the annual Make Faire at the San Mateo Event Center, where I got to see hundreds people creating their own things. Some -- like 3D printing and DIY drones (as in "do it yourself") -- were very high-tech. Others, like crafts, crochet and food, involved technologies invented hundreds or even thousands of years ago. But what every exhibit had in common was the notion that people can "make" their own things.
Actually, it wasn't just things. I helped "make" the electricity to power my son's Will Magid Trio concert at the Rock the Bike stage at the Faire by peddling one of several stationary bikes connected to a generator. I also enjoyed a smoothie that was made using a converted Vitamix blender powered by a stationary bicycle called the "Fender Blender Pro."
What I liked most about the Faire were all the school and youth projects on display. Working with the UC Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science, the Tech Museum of Innovation and the Bay School, the organizers of the Faire this year showed off their "Young Makers" projects that included student-made microscopes, toys, balloon projects, solar vehicles and much more.
The Maker Faire is associated with Make Magazine, a quarterly guide to all things do it yourself. Make's website, makezine.com, is a worth a visit for anyone who wants to learn more about how to become a "maker."
The maker movement in schools now has a bible. There is a new book aimed at educators wanting to inspire students to become makers called Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom, by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager.
Part philosophical treatise, part hands-on recipes and part inspirational, the book helps teachers and parents come up with projects to engage kids. They range from creating customized projects to programming computers and mobile devices to creating your own wearable computers such as a sweatshirt with turn signals that flash while you peddle your bike. There is advice on how to use Legos to make your own robots or how to incorporate Arduino, an open source single-board microcontroller that's being used increasingly to create or control objects or environments that can interact with sensors.
There are Arduino-controlled devices that can display text, turn on appliances, make robots move or even allow a cat to send a tweet when it plays with an Arduino-controlled toy.
The book's page on "The eight elements of a good project" is worth the price of admission because it helps the reader understand what can work in a classroom. Martinez and Stager don't want teachers to dumb down projects but encourage ones that "prompt intrigue in the learner enough to have him or her invest time, effort and creativity in the development of the project." There is also advice on how to plan a project and how to find the necessary materials.
I was also glad to see the authors put the maker movement into an historical context with a chapter devoted to the history of how educators, artists and inventors -- beginning with Leonard da Vinci -- have been encouraging DYI projects. I was pleased to see them pay homage to John Dewey, who, they write, "advocated for students to be actively engaged in authentic interdisciplinary projects connected to the real word." And I was personally gratified that they mentioned the resurgence in "open education, classroom centers, and project-based learning" during the '60s and '70s, because I was deeply involved in that during my UC Berkeley days, when I helped run the Center for Participant Education. Later, I ran the Center for Educational Reform, in Washington DC.
But, of course, all us -- even Leonardo da Vinci -- were latecomers as far as the maker movement is concerned. Our prehistoric ancestors millions of years ago, figured out how to turn stones into tools so that they could make things. Only they didn't have fairs, books and websites to document the process.
This post adapted from a column that first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News