During my time at the World Science Festival this year I had the opportunity to hear a couple presentations on different topics. I enjoyed most but one presentation in particular rubbed me the wrong way. Normally I would just ease over the rough parts and pluck out the gems but in this case I think the rough parts deserve some attention.
The specific presentation was titled “Mentoring Makers: What’s Wrong with DIY.” In his presentation professor Neil Gershenfeld made a few provocative statements. In essence he feels DIY is, at its core, wrong. The DIY culture leads to the reinvention of past mistakes and doesn’t do enough to mentor young people. As evidence he cites the design of a popular 3D printer which uses wood and screws to compose the body. This design, he says, is faulty. Over time the wood dries out and the screws or bolts loosen. It’s a flaw that has been solved by large firm manufacturers long ago.
His disdain for 3D printers in general was quite evident and extended far beyond the materials used in their construction. His entire presentation was punctuated by the repeated refrain “I hate 3D printers!” He makes a good point that 3D printers aren’t the end-all of home custom fabrication. CNC machines, laser cutters and even basic lathes are all very powerful tools that are more efficient for some designs. A 3D printer, he states, should only be used for designs which are too complex to be made any other way.
While his point is valid on the face of efficiency, a 3D printer allows for a wider array of shapes and objects to be produced at a lower cost and smaller space than an entire workshop of machines. To me the usefulness of the machine is self-evident and shouldn’t be discounted on the basis that it’s not the best tool for all jobs.
The professor’s dislike of DIY culture doesn’t stop at 3D printers. It wasn’t very surprising his next target was the Arduino. To paraphrase his arguments, “It’s a bad standard at the right time. Another example being MIDI. AVRs, the chip used on most Arduino boards, comes in a variety of sizes and features. The Arduino forces people into a least common denominator design.”
I had a little trouble following the logic but at its core it seems he felt the standard Arduino design forced people into a footprint that didn’t allow for maximum use of various AVR capabilities. At this point I wanted to throw my hands in the air and walk out since no amount of discussion surrounding standardization spurring adoption and creativity would dissuade him from his position. Despite this, I remained. I wanted to see where this talk was going and what he thought was the better way.
The presentation didn’t move on to a point just yet. Instead we were treated to anecdotal stories of children who were so interested in various things they became involved in the DIY culture. They picked up topics and ran with them so quickly they excelled beyond what schools could teach them. “They fell off a cliff.” I was floored. Because these kids became excited about science, sought their own community to learn, experiment and excel, they … what? Couldn’t learn more about those topics in school?
This is when the presentation finally got to the point. DIY is bad because it doesn’t encourage collaboration and mentoring in education. The fact that there are people learning on their own and succeeding is proof positive that the paradigm is broken.
After the short presentation I was sure I somehow misunderstood. His premise seemed so obviously flawed or incorrect I thought maybe he just had a hard time communicating what he meant or I was too ready to be offended. When I got my chance to ask a question I found myself unable to organize all the questions I had. Instead I only managed to ask him if he saw the Maker movement as constructive or destructive. Without a second thought the professor asserted it walked the line between the two. This man who just spent nearly a half hour arguing against the maker culture and for a mentoring community to achieve … something … continued to see the very inspiration of his mentoring model to be, at best, inconsequential.
To be fair, using mentors in education to help whole classes of students excel is a great idea. Partnerships with schools is an excellent first step for someone to pursue but I don’t believe the DIY and Maker movements are detrimental or counter to this goal. Makers inspired students. Students inspired the professor. The professor will hopefully go on to inspire many more students. In the meantime there’s no reason to stop having resources available to anyone who wants to learn. A standardized platform which brings down costs for everyone and lowers the barrier to entry is, in my mind, 100% constructive.
Clearly this presentation ruffled my feathers a bit. I’ve seen so many people become inspired by seeing interactive science exhibits only to be dissuaded by the high barrier of entry that I was ecstatic to see the Stamp and later Arduino and Netduino platforms become massively available at prices easy afforded by most people. Communities sprang up, education became available and many people are doing amazing things I never thought to do with an engineering background! Clearly, to me, the Maker movement has been a net positive. For all its reinventing of past mistakes it brought education. For every student who got inspired and educated themselves beyond the traditional education system, a new kit becomes available making designs more approachable to others.
I appreciate your enthusiasm, professor, but we can’t just sit around and wait for the infrastructure to be available before we will learn and make. We will be more than happy to see it come about and I’m sure quite a few people will be ready at day one to fill those mentor roles you will need. I hope you won’t be too upset if their experience came from the maker movement.
Oh, and if you want to check out some DIY culture, every Saturday night Adafruit does a live show-and-tell hosted on Google+ at 9:30 EST and Ask an Engineer at 10pm – 11pm. There’s always a lot to learn and some cool projects to check out.