The Joy Of Making Things

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In New Haven, Connecticut, where I live with my husband and two sons, we are lucky to have nearby the Eli Whitney Museum. This place is the opposite of a “please don’t touch” repository of fine art. It’s an  “experimental learning workshop” where kids engage in an essential but increasingly rare activity: they make stuff. Right now, looking around my living room, I can see lots of the stuff made there by my older son: a model ship that can move around in water with the aid of a battery-powered motor he put together; a “camera obscura” that can project a real-world scene onto a wall in a darkened room; a wooden pinball game he designed himself. (You can view an archive of Eli Whitney Museum projects here.)

The people who run Eli Whitney call these hands-on projects “experiments.” As they put it: “Experiments are a way of learning things. They require self-guided trial and error, active exploration, and testing by all the senses. Experiments begin with important questions, questions that make you think or that inspire you to create.” This process of exploring, testing and finding out is vital to children’s intellectual and psychological development—but opportunities to engage in it are fewer than they once were. “My friends and I grew up playing around in the garage, fixing our cars,” says Frank Keil, a Yale University psychologist who is in his early 60’s. “Today kids are sealed in a silicon bubble. They don’t know how anything works.”

Many others have noticed this phenomenon. Engineering professors report that students now enter college without the kind of hands-on expertise they once unfailingly possessed. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “we scour the country looking for young builders and inventors,” says Kim Vandiver, dean for undergraduate research. “They’re getting harder and harder to find.” MIT now offers classes and extracurricular activities devoted to taking things apart and putting them together, an effort to teach students the skills their fathers and grandfathers learned curbside on weekend afternoons.

Why should this matter? Some would argue that the digital age has rendered such technical know-how obsolete. Our omnipresent devices work the way we want them to (well, most of the time), with no skill required beyond pushing a button. What’s to be gained by knowing how they work?

Actually, a lot. Research in the science of learning shows that hands-on building projects help young people conceptualize ideas and understand issues in greater depth. In  an experiment described in the International Journal of Engineering Education in 2009, for example, one group of eighth-graders was taught about water resources in the traditional way: classroom lectures, handouts and worksheets. Meanwhile, a group of their classmates explored the same subject by designing and constructing a water purification device. The students in the second group learned the material better: they knew more about the importance of clean drinking water and how it is produced, and they engaged in deeper and more complex thinking in response to open-ended questions on water resources and water quality.

If we want more young people to choose a profession in one of the group of crucial fields known as STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—we ought to start cultivating these interests and skills early. But the way to do so may not be the kind of highly structured and directed instruction that we usually associate with these subjects. Instead, some educators have begun taking seriously an activity often dismissed as a waste of time: tinkering. Tinkering is the polar opposite of the test-driven, results-oriented approach of No Child Left Behind: it involves a loose process of trying things out, seeing what happens, reflecting and evaluating, and trying again.

“Tinkering is the way that real science happens, in all its messy glory,” says Sylvia Martinez, co-author of the new book Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. Martinez is one of the leaders of the “makers’ movement,” a nationwide effort to help kids discover the value of getting their hands dirty and their minds engaged. The next generation of scientists—and artists, and inventors, and entrepreneurs—may depend on it.
Brilliant readers, did you grow up tinkering? Do you think today’s kids are missing out on this experience? Please share your thoughts below . . .

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18 Responses to “The Joy Of Making Things”

  1. Steve Straight says:

    Yes, and unless you plan to hire someone to do every single job around your house or apartment, you just have to learn how to figure stuff out. Carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, and a zillion other tasks are about figuring things out.

    Plus, it’s both rewarding and mostly fun.

    • Stephan Wilkinson says:

      You’re absolutely right. Every time I fix the furnace, or the dishwasher or dryer or leaky faucet, I think to myself, “I just made $250.” Which is what I’d otherwise be paying a service person.

  2. Another great post – thank you. In my work around the shift to personalized, blended learning I see more schools thinking about how they can create opportunities where students are producers in their own learning and not just consumers of content. The “Maker Culture” movement is also an interesting interplay between technology and creativity as well. In my life as a mother of a fourth-year montessori student, I see montessori education as a model that gets it right in terms of prioritizing work with the hand from the earliest stages. Maria Montessori referred to hands as “the instruments of intelligence” and explained, ““The human hand allows the minds to reveal itself.”

  3. Jerry Hall says:

    I once took apart an old TV set . I un-soldered all the components and sorted them. Always built my own stuff from kits I ordered from places like Heathkit and radioshack. Always had a great time and it got me interested in math and science.

  4. Stephan Wilkinson says:

    As a child I tinkered, at Harvard I spent more time under my 1936 Ford phaeton than I did in class, as a young adult I kept tinkering, and ultimately I built a high-performance airplane and then a racecar. Started out with Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets and chemistry sets. Graduated to Heathkit hifi amplifiers, then my Falco (airplane) kit and the Porsche 911SC that I totally rebuilt into a track car.

    And today, in my dotage, I build extremely detailed airplane models. My motto is “Stop me before I kit again.”

    I think one of the problems is that Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets and chemistry kits either no longer exist or are no longer popular. I did discover the other day that Erector Sets still exist, though they seem quite different than the ones I used. Chemistry sets are still out there, though I’m sure they’ve been purged of all the delightfully dangerous ingredients I used in the 1940s, and I’m sure you can still find Heathkits on e-Bay.

  5. Anna Cotton says:

    As a high school science teacher who firmly believes in the power of project based, experiential, constructivist learning (pick you buzz word) I hope that tinkering and structured, direct instruction do not have to be in conflict with each other. Especially to introduce students who aren’t comfortable, one may need a bit of structure to get to the place that they are comfortable to tinker unaided or unbothered. Its up to us as teachers to find a balance so we can open the doors to as many students as possible. Great read, thanks for sharing.

  6. Lisa Hansel says:

    Interesting post! I certainly agree that students need to do hands-on learning–in science, math, history, music, and art. But I am not comfortable with thinking about this as either direct instruction or projects. Research clearly shows that project-based learning is extremely difficult to do well, and that there is a risk of the achievement gap growing as the most advanced students make useful discoveries while other students grow frustrated (see https://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/spring2012/Clark.pdf).

    I think a combined approach makes more sense. Start with some direct instruction to give all students a foundation of knowledge and skills on a given topic, then create a project that allows them to reinforce and extend what they have learned.

  7. Joseph Bellina says:

    Good article. Elementary students learn science in ways similar to how scientist learn. It has been challenging getting teachers to move from center stage to do this work, but we are making progress.

  8. Kjetil Kjernsmo says:

    I believe this is largely the result of bad policy over the past couple of decades. We lost one generation of tinkerers and hackers, my generation, to bad policy, but I am hopeful we will not lose another. At least, I’ll try my best to see to it that my kids grow up tinkering.

  9. Kathleen says:

    Lisa’s combined approach seems sensible. The topic raises a host of issues. Where students live, types and facilities at schools, teacher training, the perception of ‘trade’ classes verses academic classes; students today would say hacking computers is a hands on experience. Also classes such as textiles, art and photography are hands classes available in western countries, and still traditionally a female domain. Tinkering can occur in a range of areas, science being one. My husband grew up without a male figure, in a rented upstairs flat, no garden shed, a very basic school. University gave him the opportunity to tinker in computer science, and when a tap needs fixing….. Oh I won’t go there.

  10. Nancy Eisenberg says:

    As the mother of an 8 year old tinkerer/scientist, it helped when his kindergarten identified that he has a “transformational schema,” because even though I always supported his explorations, the mess is still sometimes a challenge for me. THAT’S why he likes to see what will happen when….which is all well and good, so long as he cleans up from the last experiment before he moves on to the next. Baking soda and vinegar are endlessly interesting in our house. Hammering rocks. Heaps of stuff kids can do at home, from a young age. And we’re lucky to have a great science teacher at the elementary/primary school, who likes loud, explosive, tactile experiments. The concentration and initiative in my young tinkerer will take him far in life, no doubt.

  11. Garry says:

    Great article! My wife, myself, and many of my friends are constantly reminded how much knowledge and skills are being lost in the last few decades. I see others noticing it as well as homesteading groups are popping up all over the place in an effort to reclaim the ability to be self sufficient. I have seen several videos/documentaries on the dying breed of craftsman. And I believe it’s true the art of design has been removed in an effort to be cheaper and more efficient much of the time. But design isn’t dead. We just aren’t placing a high enough value on it in our culture.

    Whatever the reason why…. I’m not looking for the why anymore, I’m too busy teaching my children and the little boy scouts and ventures I’m responsible for. We need our culture to change and see the value once again in the skills we have now with computers AND the skills our grandfathers had. I truly see the future will be held by those whose have combined there skills of past and present. Isn’t that what happened during the Renaissance?

  12. Al Meyers says:

    Great post, Annie. I would have a look at a TEDx talk which aligns quite nicely with this post. TEDxPeachtree 2013 speaker Nathan Sawaya gave a talk titled, “Life, Art, and a Square Dog Named Boxer.”


  13. Suzanne Whitney says:

    As an early childhood educator I have seen a lot of the ‘free play’ aspects of children’s play being muddied with marketing. Legos for instance are an amazingly creative tool for learning and entertainment. Now you no longer buy a box of pieces, everything is part of a ‘kit’ with elaborate instructions and plans. While learning how to follow a plan is an important skill, for the youngest learners having loose pieces without a photo of a product is much more important for developing learning skills and fostering creativity and lateral thinking.

  14. Adele Finer says:

    Interesting that the women who posted are either teachers or mothers of boys. I grew up making things on my father’s workbench in the basement of our house and became an engineer and architect. I think that girls especially could benefit from hand-on experimentation to expose them to the sciences.

    We live in an apartment, where there’s not a lot of room to tinker, but our kids try. One girl, one boy, both “mechanically inclined”.

    Any other women in the sciences, or mothers and fathers of girls who would like to comment?

  15. Nancy says:

    I tinkered. When I was around 10-12, I found out there was a mantle clock in the family that didn’t work at all. It was a torsion pendulum clock (the kind with the rotating, not swinging pendulum). Since it didn’t work, I asked my mom if I could take it apart and figure out what was wrong. She let me. It was fascinating to see how it stored energy in the spring and how the gears interacted to move the different hands. I didn’t completely fix it, but I did get it running somewhat. I eventually became an engineer, though not mechanical. I went into Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. I’m forever grateful for parents who let me get my hands dirty, and who never tried to get me into “female” professions. I was always told I could do whatever I wanted when I grew up.

  16. Nancy says:

    Oh, one other thing: my dad was an electrical engineer and gave me electronics kits a couple of times for Christmas. Electronics just wasn’t as interesting to me as chemistry. Once I hooked up some wires from the electronics kit to a battery and a couple of inverted test tubes and made oxygen and hydrogen. It was slow, so I stuck the whole setup under my bed for several hours. I begged for a chemistry set, but never got one (I suspect my siblings had made some messes when they’d had one, and my mom didn’t want a repeat). This was a close as I could get.

  17. Erin says:

    Yes! I finally had the chance to bring my 5 year old The Chicago Children’s Museum, holding on strong to what I believe is the founding value, the true tradition of Childrens’ museums. We were thrilled to discover The Tinkering Lab and now have this language of “tinkering” in our approach to learning and life! My big guy got to wear safety goggles, choose from an amazing assortment of tools and materials, use a hammer and nail and a real saw in a vice to create something of his own imagining to take home. So big. Capable and creative.

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