Tie And Jeans

What’s worth big #makered money?

I haven’t been on an active mailing list since the heyday of BAISNET in the early 00s. The k12-FabLab list just had it’s first birthday, and I’m delighted to find how much conversation between those educators has become a part of my learning process.

I also forgot what I hated about mailing lists. Even lists with open-doors and a high signal/noise ratio tend towards informational black holes. Great ideas, new projects, vibrant conversation – everything vanishes into anonymous archives, obfuscated underneath nested and truncated subject lines.

So, if you’re interested, join us! In the meantime, I’ll repost some of my more cogent responses from the list here.

Sean Justice asked the most sensible and nuanced variant of “what big things should a Makerspace purchase?” that I’ve seen.

What’s your favorite machine? In the fablab learning environment you manage, teach in, play with—what component feels most essential to you?

My answer is almost automatic, despite the fact that our #makered program only gets to use this machine when we visit NovaLabs. In terms of awesome per cubic foot, I don’t think you can beat the laser cutter. There are a ton of other metrics that push laser cutters out of the snap-purchase category, but if your environment/infrastructure/budget can support them, the quality of student product and design experience is phenomenal.

I really have enjoyed having sewing machines in the space this year. Not only have some students started using them, but they’re visible and familiar signifiers to other teachers in the building, and have outperformed my expectations in drawing other adults into our space.

As much as I’ve enjoyed our 3D printer as a student project, it’s only in the last few weeks that we’ve started benefit from it as a tool. Designing and printing propellors and parts for repair feels awesome. Generating ugly toys felt lame.

Our space sounds similar to yours, in that beyond the 3D printer everything else is either a simple tool or material. I admit that the distinction between those three terms is fuzzy and debatable (I’d call soldering irons tools, in the same category as screwdrivers or scissors, while the SNES and MakeyMakeys are materials), but I hope it’s clear enough for this discussion.

Watching the 3D printer’s upswing of utility has informed how I evaluate infrastructure purchases for #makered. Anything that costs over a few hundred dollars, can’t just create interesting products or require novel design skills. Our space needs machines that will drastically improve students’ experience when working with the broadest collection of materials.

So our 3D printer is proving awesome because it makes cheap motors and battery packs into capable BEAM robots. It can transform a bin of toy helicopters into an incredibly deep dive into the principles behind multirotor flight, without the upfront purchase of a hexcopter kit. It makes a $10 hovercraft kit into a meaningful design exercise, because students can reverse engineer any part they can’t scavenge.

With this heuristic, I’m still set on the laser cutter as the peak of #makered infrastructure. As Angie and Diego have shown, a laser cutter can transform piles of recycled bike boxes (call your local cycling shop!) into months of fascinating and enjoyable mechanical engineering. While you could try the same tasks with Exacto knives, I think the combination of safety risks, lackluster quality and sheer drudgery suggest that the machine plays a central role in these projects.

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