The Story of C.R.E.A.T.E.

Wednesday, January 1, 2025

The continuing story of CREATE, a K-5 public school makerspace in Silicon Valley.

Monday, June 24, 2019

So, Why Are We Even Doing This?

MakerEd is not, repeat, not shop class. We are not (not!) training people how to build things with their hands so they can go out and build those things for a living. We are teaching them how to think. We are teaching them the same traditional things, math, social studies, science, etc., that we always have. We’re just doing it in a way that allows the learning to persist beyond standardized testing.

Automation has displaced millions of workers over the past generation. In recent years, half of those displaced workers have exited the workforce, never to work again. This means that more of our students, than has been the case for the last century, will have no jobs at all.
"Approximately 25 percent of U.S. employment (36 million jobs in 2016) will face high exposure to automation in the coming decades (with greater than 70 percent of current task content at risk of substitution)."
Muro, Maxim, Whiton, Hathaway
Automation and Artificial Intelligence
Brookings Institution
January, 2019

We must avoid becoming "product fixated." If a student fails to complete a project, but showed excellence in the design of a portion or component, we should consider giving more weight to that subset. Individualized education is inherently "unfair" in the traditional sense – that is it is not equal, it is equitable. Students' ability to push through failure, collaborate, adapt and synthesize are far more important than an end-of-the-unit widget.

So what we’re doing is training people to live. We’re training people to deal with the challenges in life that we cannot predict. We’re training people to analyze and solve problems that no one has thought of. We're training them to become the fellow citizens that we all need.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

CREATE and the art of growth

All of us are born makers and innovators. Just have a conversation with a five-year-old. Their sense of the world has not been solidified or limited by experience. Everything is possible. Our kindergarteners are new to our school and to CREATE. Creating nine kinds of pies with a purple crayon is totally plausible to a five-year-old.

For the past 100+ years, the traditional school system has been about suppressing innovation in favor of standardized knowledge. Students were the output of a system intended to "manufacture" factory workers. "Creative" workers were a problem in a system where every human component was supposed to be interchangeable. Creating learners who could grow independently was simply not part of the plan.

To many people, school is about preparing learners for "21st century jobs." Yet, there is no way that we can know what those jobs are. 10 years ago, I could not have described my job. It didn't exist. It is the heights of hubris and arrogance to think that we know what the jobs of 15 years from now will be.

Failed 3-D print.
So we take a different approach to learning here.

An engineer is somebody who uses their mind to solve problems in real life. Technology is a thing invented via the engineering and design process to solve problems. Our makerspace, CREATE, is where those things come together.

But we're not an engineering principles class. We encourage students to not only define their own techniques, we ask them to define their own goals. CREATE's culture is deliberately built as a safe place for failure — and learning by analyzing those failures. Questions like "Why didn't it do what I want?" and "How can I change it to make it better?" are the background music that indicates learning success.

We can't reliably guess where our students will end-up. So we must provide them not only with the techniques to learn anything, but with the confidence that they can do anything.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Aspirations, not standards

Integrating MakerEd into education has to honor the expectation of benchmarks, if not standards. Even though I've been really plugged-in to social media for decades, I couldn't find a list of maker skill progressions anywhere. So, with the help of people all over the country, I made a Maker Skills Progression Google Sheet. It's a living document that still has some gaps. Please feel free to comment on it.

This rubric is a spectrum of mastery levels for particular skills. In other words, "Once you do this, then you can aim at this." It’s a tool for teachers to encourage progress, regardless of a specific student's starting point. It can be used for any age. For example, I’m probably a Level B in sewing and a Level D in soldering. We should not expect, let alone require, students to be all Es in all skills.

These aren't standards. (Not standards!) They are aim points and guides for individual classroom teachers. It should be perfectly acceptable for a given student to be a Level B in one skill and an E in another. The rubrics are strictly aspirational. Origami and 3-D design do not have to be for everybody.

Once students are at Level E, then that skill is just a tool they’re good with. After that, it’s totally about their content — what they make and its educational validity.

As a teacher, the levels let you know what quality level of craftsmanship to expect from a student. Theoretically, a student with B-level skills and a student with E-level skills could both get graded highly on a given project — if they have great content. Conversely, a student with A-level skills could get a low grade if they didn’t work up to their known level of craftsmanship.

It's a challenge to educate the profession that this is not a continuation of the way we’ve always done things. If a teacher is looking for standards boxes to check off, then we have not done our job right in educating them about how maker education works. Traditionally trained teachers often look for checkbox standards and we need to head them off. Early childhood development experts, physicians and occupational therapists can identify what specific hand-eye coordination and manipulative benchmarks are appropriate for a given age. Those evaluations lie outside of mainstream maker ed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Learning to "ROAR"

CREATE(ing) time

If you ask any teacher what one thing that they need more of (besides money) they will tell you that they need more time. We found a way to "create" more time for teachers without diminishing the students' classroom experience. For a week each month, we bring in substitute teachers for each grade level per day and send their students on an all-day rotation through STEAM activities. The teachers spend the entire day on professional development and prep time.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Making Sacrifices

Sacrificial workbench tops

Wear and tear is one of the things built into our workbenches. Students will cut without mats, scraping-up hot glue damages the work surfaces. In other words: School happens. So the tops of our workbenches are sacrificial. Every year or two, we rip them off (they're attached with a minimum of silicone glue) and replace them with new tops.

Old bench top about to be replaced. New surface is visible in the rear.
Our original tabletops were a thin white plastic designed to be attached to a wall. But it was so thin, that when the temperature in the room changed, the material warped and made for an uneven work surface. The second version was whiteboard paneling, but the white surface was too thin to withstand day-to-day punishment (see photo above.)

Our current version is fused laminate board, designed for custom cabinets. It's actually donated scrap from a local company, which they generously cut to the exact size for us. As of this writing, it's been in use for five months and is standing up very well.


Workbench Plans

Original surface (bad)

Donated sheets of thermal fused laminate board

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Making hot glue guns safer

We rely a great deal on the kindness of strangers. Sort-of strangers, actually. Much of our material is donated by our families or by businesses with ties to our staff and others. We were recently gifted with three gently used hot glue guns. The problem was that they were switchable between low temperature (105C) and high temperature (165C.) While 105C is hot enough to get your attention and even cause tears in a student, the burns are typically minor and painless after less than an hour. High-temp hot glue guns can quickly cause serious burns and scarring if not treated quickly.

So I broke them. Well, not exactly broke. I disabled the temperature switch after setting it to low temperature by putting a drop of hot glue into it.

Thank you, strangers. (The stranger in this case was Mrs. Mark, who finally decided to part with our in-home elementary arts and crafts tools. Our youngest kids are now in college.)

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Resurrecting CREATE

Last Spring, our campus became a construction site. Portable classrooms were trucked in, regular classrooms were emptied, concrete broken up and poured, all while school continued. Our administration building, including the staff' lounge, was closed down with the main office moving into a portable. This meant that CREATE would be temporarily repurposed as a combination of the staff lunch room, copy room and, for good measure, we moved the staff mailboxes in. All of the makerspace stuff was packed into boxes and stored.

When the students returned in August, there was a lot of residual campus makerspace culture that had lacked a central place of expression. I constantly fielded questions from frustrated makers who wanted to know when CREATE would reopen.

But our maker culture has more momentum than anything that could be overcome by the temporary closure of CREATE. As I've said many times, all of De Vargas is a makerspace. Making continued in classrooms in concert with our Project Based Learning ethos. But, that tinker time itch of free making was still not getting scratched.

On Halloween, that ended...

The storage containers disgorged their contents of boxes marked "Room 8," (CREATE's "real" name.)  Over two weeks I unpacked and restored the room to our friendly, comfortable, making environment. I was able to revisit some of our storage and removed almost all of the remaining cabinet doors. The only ones left cover dangerous tools or materials, cleaning supplies, and sink plumbing. Everything else is now wide open with much more in the students' reach.

We're back to campus normal again.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

CREATE Adds a Lego Wall

More than a year after our Donors Choose campaign, we finally inaugurated our Lego wall. Here's the explainer video:

Friday, August 25, 2017


I just thought I'd post a list of the things that we purchase to keep CREATE moving. These are non-"junk" consumables. Typically purchased, not donated.
  • Duct tape
  • Masking tape
  • Low-temperature hot-glue sticks
  • Adhesive glue sticks
  • LR44, 2032, AA, 9-volt batteries
  • Rubber bands
  • String (various)
  • Solder
  • 18-gauge single-strand copper wire (various insulation colors)
  • Box cutter replacement blades
  • Nails
  • Wood screws
  • Carpenters glue
  • White copy paper
  • Graph paper
  • Construction paper
  • Pencils
  • Crayons
  • Markers
  • Acrylic paints

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Old Toys, New Tools

We have a new Lego Wall, now what?

Tools can be engaging, making can inspire agency, but all of it needs to support education.

I saw a Lego wall at a friend's Fab Lab. It was a section of square Lego tiles mounted vertically on a wall. Students could build projects or, (and this was cool) marble runs. But a Lego wall isn't just fun. It's a sophisticated educational tool that connects to a variety of education skills across the grade levels. I had to have one.

My high school and college-aged kids Legos were now disused. I could donate them to the project, but we only had one of the 64 7x7-inch Lego tiles needed for the project. A DonorsChoose campaign languished for a while until an anonymous donor swooped in and paid for nearly the whole thing.

Our sister middle school provided a massive plywood substrate upon which to mount the tiles. The whole things easily weighs more than 300 pounds. So make sure your mounting system is substantial. We used an interlocking wooden cleat system that runs the full width of the plywood.

We followed Dana Rendina's excellent plan for How to build a Lego Wall. If you build one, read Dana's page. She will keep you from making some of the most common mistakes.

So now what do we do with it?

I created a brief video showing a simple marble run and a short document describing the wall and listing a number of relevant NGSS and CCSS standards that could be addressed via projects and exercises using it.

Schools resumes in six weeks. There's no doubt that the students will create ways of using this new tool that I cannot imagine.

Monday, October 10, 2016


I implemented Mrs. Dickson's unintended inspiration. If you recall from "Mrs. Dickson's Protein Sprayer," I took a misunderstood phrase and came up with the idea of taking random nouns and verbs to make a prompt to build a physical device. Builders not only have to understand the words they get, but then they would have to build a thing that logically tied-into those words.

As always, the the students exceed expectations. One selected the words "house" and "deliver." I would have thought that a "house deliverer" would be something that delivered houses. But that is not what she thought. Her house deliverer was a house that delivered things.

The next step is going to be making a story, in any form, based upon the thing they build.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Coding exercise

Here's a cool Python tool to play around with. Change the variables and press the play button. If you mess-up, click on the three horizontal lines and select Reset.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Makerspaces: Why and How (In That Order)

Video recorded from a live Google Hangout On Air for EdCamp Global on July 30, 2016.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Memorializing Your Work

After a while you just run out of room for memorabilia. I know that I cannot keep every project. Some of them contain expensive components that have to be re-used. Others are simply too big or too fragile. Still others are team efforts and, lets' face it, you can't win 'em all.

But recording and sharing projects is an important part of the design cycle and of the Maker ethos.

I recently completed a project at the Design, Do, Discover Conference in Palo Alto, Calif. I worked with a tremendous team of educators on a sound-visualization project based on Charlotte's Web. The project used farm-animal audio files, triggered by a Scratch-controlled Makey Makey along with a plastic membrane suspended over a speaker causing sugar to visibly vibrate with each sound. The trigger buttons were cartoon animals including the actual sound waveform, laser-engraved into plywood. This allowed users to also feel a representation of the sound.

I shot video and still images all along the design and construction process.

After the project was disassembled and the Makey Makey and speaker returned to the Bourn Lab at host Castilleja School, I grabbed the part of the project that I worked the most on: the vibrating membrane that showed sugar moving in concert with the animal sounds.

What I didn't think about was that the interior temperature of my car exceeded the point where the cup, under pressure of electrical tape and a rubber band, could hold its structural integrity.

Luckily, I had the video.

And the cow. I also grabbed the cow.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Mrs. Dickson's Protein Sprayer

Bear with me on this. I promise that I'll get to a very cool tinker-time tool.

During the last school year, CREATE shared duties as our school's art room, so I had a lot of contact with our fabulous art teacher, Mrs. Dickson. One day, she and I were talking and she made reference to a "protein sprayer." Since Mrs. Dickson grew up in her native Japan, and "protein sprayer" was such an unusual reference, after I stopped my silly giggling, I asked her to repeat herself. As it turned out, she had said "pro tennis player,' which actually did make contextual sense. And it got me thinking...

What was a protein sprayer? What if somebody tried to build one? What if students were given random nouns and verbs and asked to build the object suggested by that combination?

Here's the recipe:
  1. Generate a list of random nouns.
  2. Generate a list of random verbs.
  3. Print each list and cut the words up into separate pieces.
  4. Put the verbs into one container and the nouns into another.
  5. Have the students pick a noun and a verb.
  6. No matter what they pick, they are then committed to designing and building that thing and describing its function.
Imagine the possibilities when students build river separators or toothpaste concentrators or ghost traders...

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Taking charge, getting it done

It was just an afterschool 1st-grade tinker time session. But they came rushing in with a goal. It was a classmate's birthday and they were making a "cake." Their sense of mission was breathtaking. They were a well-oiled project management team.

They didn't have time to finish the cake, so they took the components away with them. I do know that they left just a bit more practiced in collaborating, solving problems and with more confidence in themselves.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Non-Newtonian Rattlesnake

It started with a plan to make a "rattle." Rather than accept a plan to throw some hard stuff into a bottle and call it done. I asked, "what kind of rattle?" "What will it sound like?" The student said, offhandedly, ""Like a rattlesnake." I pressed him to identify what a real rattlesnake sounded like so he could gauge the effectiveness of his build. We used my laptop to search for rattlesnake sounds.

After choosing a sound he liked, he then chose just the right mix of rice and beans to match the recording.

Of course, his buddy's unopened box of Nerds candy also sounded exactly right.

An exploration of non-Newtonian fluids with cornstarch and just the right amount of water. When it's mixed just right, it will pour, but if it is subjected to a sudden pressure, it will act like a solid. Plus it feels really good!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Cubbies Part 3: Organic Quality Control

It's interesting to see the students gain knowledge and confidence. They've got measuring down and now I've introduced laying out multiple cuts on a single piece of wood to minimize waste. I suggested that they measure the stock in both directions to see if that made any difference in how many finished pieces they could get out of it.

They've independently developed a system of cooperative production and quality control. An eraser is a favored tool. They now understand the level of precision required in what they're doing.

Lightbulbs are switching on, big time.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Silicone Cake

When an afterschool tinker time regular asked me if we had a caulking gun, I didn't now how to answer. Nothing we had done in CREATE called for that sort of tool. Besides, how would a fifth grader even know about caulking guns?

I did have one squirreled away from the workbench construction in 2014 and I told her we did. It was the end of the session and she went home before I was able to ask her why she wanted it.

She arrived for the next session carrying a brown shopping bag. Inside was a ziplock bag, a cake decorating tip and a cartridge of white silicone. I handed her the caulking gun and showed her how to use it.

The cartridge had been previously opened and the tip was irretrievably clogged. But a couple of quick slices with a box cutter exposed the gooey white insides. Using a couple of popsicle sticks, she gooped the silicone into the bag, squished it down toward the decorating tip and proceeded to create permanent cake decoration.

The most satisfying events in CREATE are those that originate from the students without prompting from me. This student created her project in her mind and then proceeded to meet each challenge and eliminate each obstacle. It doesn't get much better for any educator.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Leprechaun Trap

Leprechaun Trap

If the kinder and 1st graders are building leprechaun traps, it must be St. Patrick's Day. But in CREATE, it's analyze, plan, build, and modify. Even the youngest students follow the design cycle.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Where is the Makerspace?

As much as we concentrate on tape, glue and batteries, none of these are necessary for a makerspace. 3-D printers are what we might show-off to visitors, but ours is easily the least used item in CREATE. I'm infamous in my family for turning coffeeshop tables into workshops with salt shakers, sugar packets and straws. A makerspace is a creature of imagination.

A catered-space makerspace
Recently, we were asked to demonstrate what we're doing in CREATE at our district's first State of the District presentation. Out of the two-hour ceremony, we were allotted 30 minutes. We brought 30 "design challenge boxes" packed with tape, scissors, box cutters and more, two two-student video crews and five members of our Mouse Squad to show the local movers and shakers how it's done. Oh yes, and a first-grader to serve as our emcee.

The Design Challenge boxes, stacked and ready to go. (Note the blue tape Sphero track on the floor.)

As soon as the boxes hit the tables, the energy in the room skyrocketed. The attendees went from listening to speeches to building "dogbone" shooters on their linen-covered tables.

I think we made our point.

Monday, February 22, 2016


The mini-car

I could see that he wasn't participating with his group. They were gathered around the final assembly of their cardboard cubby prototype (see Cubbies: From Need To Knowledge Part I.) They were fitting scale-model shelves into scale-model uprights. He was hunched over what looked like a tiny piece of scrap cardboard.

Without questioning his seeming self-imposed isolation, I asked him what he was working on. Silently, he showed me the most amazing thing. A tiny car, perhaps two inches long, with a tiny steering wheel, impossibly tiny foot pedals and working doors with millimeter-sized handles.

I oohed and ahhed and asked him about it. What I did not do was question his choices. There was no way to know for sure what he was thinking without embarrassing him in front of his group. Perhaps he felt that he didn't fit-in as the only boy in his group. Perhaps he was simply bored with the prototyping process. But I could be sure of one thing. What he did not feel was disapproved of.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Deconstruction Percussion

One of the activities we offer in CREATE is deconstructing decommissioned technology such as old computers, printers or other items that might be donated to us. The only rule is that students disassemble – not destroy. The object is for them to observe and analyze the item, try to figure out how it was assembled and then select the appropriate tool for disassembly. When they first experience this, often their choice is the biggest hammer they can find. That's when they start learning about different screw heads, Torx drivers, torque and analytical thinking.

"...the biggest hammer they can find."

The usual end result is a pile of components and chassis that are stripped bare and some recovered motors and magnets. But sometimes, the end result is something else entirely.

What just happened?

The sound from outside the door was reminiscent of street scenes from Santa Cruz or from Haight Ashbury in the 1960s. Instead, it was technology repurposed in ways never intended by their manufacturers. Leave it to our kids to put the A in STEAM.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

More of a Good Problem

I've been trying to push my advanced 4th-grade 3-D design student (See 3-D Prodigy: A good problem) to up his game. His current challenge is to design something in multiple parts and assemble after printing.

His latest design is a satellite with a separate ball-pin piece that fits into a hole on the body of the spacecraft. I suspect that he made the hole exactly the same size as the pin, which will make it difficult or impossible to insert the pin. The design also has a lot of overhang on fragile pieces, which will make it difficult to remove the printing support.

The design and the toolpath visualization, including the overhang supports.
After printing it, I blue-taped the piece to a hard-copy assignment:


Remove the supports and assemble the object. Return the assembled object and report to me about how well the assembly worked. Be prepared to answer the following question:

How could the object be improved?

My goal is to open his consciousness to the limitations of the medium (you can't print on air) and the material (it's difficult to remove supports from tiny parts) and to the math of fitting parts together. I hope that this will motivate him to be more analytical and bring his design chops to the next level.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Cubbies Part 2: From Need to Knowledge

A while back, I mentioned a need for storage in CREATE (You Can't Be Too Rich, Too Thin or Have Enough Storage) and the plan for the students to build it.

The Mental Hurdle

Even though some of them have lived in a three-dimensional world for more than a decade, most elementary students don't understand the depth element of drawn plans. The implied Z axis is not instinctive. They understood that our cubby units would be 70 inches high and 42 inches wide, but they didn't understand that the plans sunk down into the paper 25 inches.
The plans.
Rather than blow $300 in lumber and hardware, I had the students start with a scale-model prototype in cardboard. To shrink it down, we converted the inches to centimeters and divided that in half. That gave us a manageable 35cm-high model. (It also created a math challenge.)

Some of the teams still weren't getting the Z axis, so I built a small section of it in Tinkercad and printed-out the parts from our 3-D printer. That way, they could see and feel the way the parts looked and fit together.

3-D Z-axis mental aid.

Because the first model was just a rough guide of a portion of it, I also printed a 21-piece 6% scale model as an assembly guide. As much as I believe in the Maker ethos, we had to make all of our mistakes in cardboard.

Basic drafting, measurement unit, cardboard construction technique and practical arithmetic levels: Achieved!

Yeah, but you've still gotta pay for it

By virtue of a check from our Home and School Club and the transport help of our pick-up truck-owning 5th-grade teacher, the raw materials were in-house.

The lumber arrives.
Next up: Practicing technique with the real stuff. We still had some 3/4 and 1/2-inch MDF left over from the workbench construction, so we'll use that to practice router techniques, measuring and cutting and the "screw and glue" construction method.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Hacking hot glue

The Maker ethos is largely about taking control of your own environment. In a workshop, sometimes that means not accepting the "right" way to use materials and tools. Few things give me more pleasure than seeing students hacking their world.

We do have a rule about respecting materials. In other words, consumables should be consumed with a specific purpose – not just wasted. So when I saw a student coloring a hot glue stick, I told her that wasn't OK – the the hot glue sticks were only for use in the hot glue guns. She explained to me that she was going to use the stick in the gun and that she was trying to color the hot glue flow. When I found out she was hacking, I gave her a thumbs-up and praised her for using her imagination.

Colored hot glue.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Dance Coding

Coding brings to mind, for many people, engineers poring over screens of incomprehensible commands and algorithms. What they might not realize is that code can also be algo"rhythms." Dance can be encoded and "run" by human computers. One of our second-grade teachers (and former ballet dancer) did just that with her class for the recent Hour of Code. (Video 0:52)

Saturday, December 12, 2015

3-D Prodigy: A good problem

3-D printers are slow and expensive to operate. But you already know that. So our printing policy is limited to in-class projects. Plus, Mouse Squad members can design and print one object each during the school year. This created what turned out to be a good problem.

Unlike most students at tinker time, Aarav (not his real name) didn't work with popsicle sticks, cardboard and glue. He brought a laptop computer from his fourth-grade classroom and puttered around with the Tinkercad 3-D design application. He typically sat across the room from me and his body blocked the screen most of the time. I could see enough to see what site he was on, but not enough to see details. I figure he was stacking cylinders on boxes and topping them with spheres, or something like that.

One day, he walked over and showed me the open laptop. The beautifully designed and detailed object was amazing. I assumed that one of his parents was using it as an example to teach him what could be done in 3-D design. Something he could aspire to.

"Cool, who built that?" I said. "I did," he replied.

Frankly, I thought he was lying. I asked if his father had helped him. Nope. "Not even a little?" Nope.

I asked him details about how certain parts fit together. He knew.

"Can I print it?" he asked.

Now what do I do? Other students had come to me with similar requests and I refused them, telling them that we only printed class projects. Yet here was a kid with a passion and talent. I was darned if I would let a policy (even my policy) keep me from encouraging the heck out of him.

When he brought me another design, a completely unflyable, but artistically gorgeous aircraft, I transferred the file to my laptop and asked him what color of printer filament he preferred.

"Aarav's" plane
Later, I found that Aarav had applied to be a member of the Mouse Squad, but, for whatever reason, was turned down. I asked him if he was still interested and told him he would still have to get his parents' permission.

Aarav will now be an integral member of the Mouse Squad's project to create a presentation to teach our teachers about Tinkercad.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Don't "save" students from mental design traps

There's an old story that Sir Isaac Newton invented the doggie door. Newton had a big dog and a little dog. So, he built a door for each. What he didn't take into account was that the small dog used the larger door, rendering the small door superfluous. The small door was a design failure.

I fell victim to that process when I designed a replacement for our paper-cone rice funnel. Rather than start with the problem (pouring rice into a specific bottle) I started by merely reproducing the makeshift paper-cone drinking cup I had been using. Let's ignore the fact that I left out the opening at the bottom of my first attempt, that was a result of my inexperience with the appearance of holes in Tinkercad.

Let's just ignore this.
Rather than approach it by asking myself what the original problem was, I continued my flawed thinking by continuing to build upon my first attempt. Every design should start with that question. Don't start with how others have solved the problem, start with a fresh examination of the problem itself.

When the rice clogged the first real (with a hole!) funnel I printed, I started making a series of test holes that began two millimeters larger than the first one. I didn't realize that I was trying to find the minimum-sized hole through which the rice would pass. I completely ignored that what I was trying to build was a funnel for a specific bottle. When I finally realized that (a real d'oh! moment,) I simply measured the inside diameter of the bottle's mouth and built the funnel spout to fit into it.

My earlier failures weren't a failure of physical design, they were a failure of my mental approach. It's mandatory to start by asking the question, "What am I trying to solve?"

When we see students run into that same mental trap, it's important to choose the right moment to ask them that question. Resist the temptation to stand in front of the room and preemptively "teach" them away from the experience. The "problem" we're are trying to solve is not to have students create perfect projects. It's to put them into the position of learning how to independently think their way through challenges.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Now taking orders...

One of the special ed teachers in the district heard that we had a 3-D printer and wondered if we could make some replacement pieces for a game that her students play. Since we're not a manufacturing facility, I gave it some thought and figured that it would be a learning process. I also "charged" her two rolls of duct tape.

When the sample pieces arrived, I realized that I would have to learn how to use our calipers to measure the various dimensions.

Then I had to transform those measurements into a 3-D design in Tinkercad, where even the simplest shape can be composed of scores of negative space components.

Then there's the speed issue. Our Makerbot Mini 3-D printer took nearly an hour to print the two 38.5mm pieces in the screenshot above. Not exactly mass-production speed.

It's important to remember that consumer 3-D printers are really about prototyping or one-off pieces.

Only I saw the imperfections in the final pieces. Teacher Clare pronounced them "perfect." I learned a lot, not only about the mechanics of reproducing something in 3-D, but also about the mental approach to design. More about that in my follow-up to the rice funnel fight to the death.