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IRL Makes

One of the things I’ve been most pleased with since the Idea Realiazation Lab opened five weeks ago is the sheer amount of things we’ve created that exist in our space. And not only in our space, but throughout the entire University. From shirts for the lacrosse team to decals for our Hospitality Department, and from centerpieces for Family Weekend to the table we’re working on for our new president, the things that our students have been putting out there can be found everywhere you go on campus.

This, to me, speaks to the success of the space more than any other numbers could. Not only do students feel like they are part of the IRL, and not only do they feel comfortable and capable of using the machines within it, but they are now taking those same ideas and bringing them to other places. They are, in effect, beginning to help export our culture of making and tinkering to the rest of the institution through the artifacts that they help design and develop.

You’ll be seeing more about this in the coming months. We’re currently working on a student group that can lead these kinds of engagements, both with departments and organizations inside DePaul, and with companies outside. Students should have more experiences like this in academia: ones where they can put their ideas into practice, and where they can begin to feel a sense of agency over the classrooms, hallways, and gathering places around them by unlocking their latent creative potential and applying it to the very spaces that we all learn in.

What could this mean for how we look at our University environment? How will it change when students feel like their institution isn’t simply a place where they swing by for a class, and then leave, and instead becomes a place where they can contribute to its creative potential by practicing the very things that they’re learning? How can we continue to build on this kind of experience to help expose systems in a way that allows students to engage with them, deconstruct them, and put them back together?

Here are just a few pictures of some of the small projects we’ve worked on at the IRL in the last five weeks:

Everything Around Us is Magic

Everything around us is magic, and nobody knows how anything works. From the phones in our pockets, to the cars that ferry us around, to our systems of government, all of the critical things that have changed the way we think, work, and play are black boxes to many of us.

Systems have become complex and hard to navigate. As a result, we tend not to scratch below the surface, but instead work on top of them. As systems around us continue to become more complex, it’s more important than ever to understand how they work. This is for one simple reason: if you don’t understand how a system works, then you can’t truly participate in it, and its development. This turns us into passive bystanders, both in life, and through the things that we utilize on a daily basis. Without this understanding, the few who do comprehend how a system works can easily abuse it to their own advantage.

To address this problem, we’ve come up with useful constructs like systems thinking to help us deconstruct and understand what’s happening around us. Systems thinking gives an individual insight into the system they’re engaging with in order to best take advantage of its components toward achieving an ends. However, systems thinking only advocates for an understanding of a system in order to leverage its components. But what if the components are broken? Extraneous? How do we determine if the components in a system, or the system itself, is worthy at all?

At several of the companies I’ve recently worked with, we see this problem highlighted in their culture of “innovation.” Engineers are often tasked with taking a pre-existing thing, and are told to focus on improving that thing by 5-10% every year. They understand the components that they’re working with, and how to leverage those components in the system to register higher yield, but haven’t been given the correct context to take it any further than that.

But what if a company, or a entire field, is experiencing disruptive change? What if, instead of requiring a 5-10% change, we require an entire shift?

The problem is that innovating by making things 5-10% better does not require an understanding of the systems that underlie the things we’re improving on, only a knowledge of the general taxonomy of the system one is working within. In order to truly understand a system, then, we must go a step further than being able to describe its model; we need to engage with it. I propose, moreover, that any meaningful engagement with a system must come from playing with its components: taking them apart, tinkering with them, and putting them back together.

In “Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture,” Tim Ingold talks about how, when we engage with the physical, we are able to escape many of the preconceptions in our minds as we think. That’s because physical materials push back against those preconceptions: the real world has a way of doing that. Making explores this intersection of thinking through tinkering. More than that, making enables one to explore systems through tinkering.

Take an example I recently heard from a student, who, when describing the 3D printing of an object for a vehicle they were working on, said: “as I watched it print out, I already had another idea for the next iteration of the thing.” They could see the object on the screen before printing it, but seeing it in the physical, and being able to move beyond the conceptual phase, spurred new ideas.

The creation of components and active engagement in systems, I think, is vital to our understanding of those things. Theorizing and analyzing is not enough, as it leaves us with our own preconceptions and biases, and does not allow us to be truly critical of the system that we’re analyzing. In order to give us the capability to question a system, or the components in a system, one must engage with it in a playful, active disposition.

Moreover, understanding systems by engaging with them is important to a future where we can question the things we consume and the systems that we engage with. It makes us active participants in an economy of ideas and creation, rather than passive consumers. By tinkering, we are able to reveal knowledge that was beforehand opaque. We’re able to question.

The IRL is on Newsline

Here’s the story! And here’s the video:

I’ll be the keynote speaker at the CPS Techtalk + Googlepalooza event this coming week speaking about thinking through makerspaces, creative tinkering, and some of my recent experiences in these areas of thought. Super excited to meet everyone!

Come see me speak at the AMA’s Change MedEd in September

Here’s a video interview I did as a teaser for the event:

Running A Creative Space in Small Town America Redux

A while back I wrote a piece for Make Magazine on running a creative space (hackerspace/makerspace) in a small town. I won’t rehash it here, but if you want to catch up with my writing, here’s the article.

Every now and then I still get emails about that piece from people looking for more information. It seems there are plenty of folks who want to start their own space in their village, but don’t know where to begin! Setting aside the fact that this seems to suggest a lack of practical information for people looking to start makerspaces outside of central urban areas, it’s really great to see so many folks interested in growing their communities into true places of learning.

Anyway, along with the usual obligatory response of sending these people emails back encouraging them and linking them back to my Make article, I’ve begun giving the following advice, which I’ll copy and paste here for posterity:

  • You may have an idea for what you want the space to be, but let the members drive it. Start meeting at a coffeehouse and having people talk about their projects. Let their interests drive what the space does and what machines it acquires.
  • Partner with local libraries to teach classes on 3D printing, coding, etc. This is a great source of revenue for small spaces, and libraries really want these kinds of programs.
  • Run classes regularly at the space to bring in money and also to drive membership. Try starting a series like “Learn to Make” that runs through the basics: soldering, circuit building, programming for microcontrollers, 3D printing.
  • Find industries in your area that are looking to expand into emerging technology, and seek out partnerships with them. Listen to the problems they are having and see if you can position yourself as a group that can help solve them through continuing education and advisement.
  • If the space allows it, offer a co-working option. People usually have jobs with regular hours in smaller towns, and so the space will be empty during the day — unless you can fill it with a few co-workers.

As always, I am available to speak and consult on this topic with your organization or company. I’ll be speaking at the AMA ChangeMedEd 2017 Conference in September on the transformative acts of making in education (the likes of which happens at makerspaces!), and at C2E2 in a few weeks about how to make games (where I’m sure I’ll end up talking about making as a practice as well). Come say hi!

Special thanks to Kate MacArthur for writing such a cool piece on what we’re doing down in the Chicago Southland at Spacelab.

The computer is the Proteus of machines. Its essence is its universality, its power to simulate. Because it can take on a thousand forms and can serve a thousand functions, it can appeal to a thousand tastes.

Dale Dougherty Speaking at DePaul University

I’m very happy to announce that Dale Dougherty will be visiting DePaul University on March 7th to talk about the Maker Movement, sign books, and the upcoming Chicago Maker Faire. Sign up for his talk today! All are welcome.

The Elizabeth 3 Font

Last year, I decided to document our kids’ handwriting progress by creating a font based off of the letters they draw every year. Now that we’re about to record Elizabeth’s 4-year-old handwriting, and Maurua’s 2-year-old handwriting, I figured it’d be fun to release last year’s “Elizabeth 3” font. It’s TTF, and built using a tool you can find over at myscriptfonts.

Elizabeth-3.ttf

Something fun to do with your kids, if you’re so inclined!