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Build your own: DIY and STEM meet up in 'maker' type of playtime

When Alice Brooks was little, she wanted a doll.

Her father gave her a saw instead.

She soon learned she could make her own dolls — and animals and other toys. At 8, she was comfortable with tools in a way that most kids her age were not. She became excited about building, and one of the most valuable things she built, she said, was her own confidence in her abilities — a real boon when she decided to study engineering.

Years later, Brooks and business partner Bettina Chen are manufacturing Roominate, a building kit for girls that allows them to create anything they can imagine, from dollhouses to farm animals.

Brooks and Chen are among thousands of people who are part of the “Maker Movement,” an energetic and creative groundswell that ties folks together in pursuit of creativity, individual passions and the magic that inventing brings to life. “Making” or "hacking" — the terms are used fairly interchangeably — are celebrated with expos, open laboratory sessions, achievement badges for little makers, TED Talks for the entrepreneurial, articles, blogs and more. Companies are jumping in with a new raft of toys that offer hints — but not instructions — leaving children free to decide what to build or do.

Think of it as “do-it-yourself” meets STEM, the national push for excellence in science, technology, engineering and math. Add in the arts, as many makers and hackers do, and you have STEAM.

Then you’re really cooking.

Old and new

The Maker Movement, as it’s known today, formally began in 2005 with Make magazine, according to Thanasi Glavas, vice president of Change Hive in San Diego. The concept’s heart started beating, though, even before toys like Legos and Erector Sets encouraged kids to build whatever they could conceptualize. Magazine founder Dale Dougherty felt passionate about it, greatly boosting interest, said Glavas, a longtime maker who also organizes local maker expos.

Then computers unleashed a world of possibility on which individuals and companies began to build. Take a CNC machine — a grid with a router and a computer working together. Its dull spelled-out name, computer numerical coding, hides the fact that kids in math, computing and woodworking classes can calculate and craft even ornate objects with a precision that would be impossible otherwise.

In a maker world, everyone has the potential to be a fabricator, from the little girls who learn to solder their lighted sculptures at an Oakland, California, lab sponsored by Curiosity Hacked, to the older, adult crowd that concocted a gigantic fire-breathing octopus at a Burning Man gathering in the Nevada desert, where many iconic maker projects originate.

Makers or hackers adopt technology that was once the currency of the highly trained expert and render it a plaything of — well, anybody. Recent innovations like 3-D printers, Glavas said, mean anyone can turn ideas into objects immediately if they have the right equipment. And that is becoming more readily available as printer prices go down. A kid can dream up, draw and print a tiger-elephant. A baker can print a confection flower.

"Art is what drives making for me," Glavas said. "It's the freedom to tap into your imagination."

He believes creativity will matter for renewable energy, community development and more. It's an "evolution of our society toward better ideas and a more holistic approach to the problems we face," he said.

It also makes tasks hands-on and exciting, and even fun: "It's being applied to everything from urban development to retail design," Glavas said.

Building toys with no real goal

The first Maker Faire was held in 2006. In 2012, more than 120,000 people participated, and there are now "mini maker fairs" all over the country.

Around the same time, Curiosity Hacked started organizing, and by autumn 2012 it launched an open lab, inviting families to "make" with it. Within a short time, it had spawned 40 programs nationwide.

Participants at the lab, some as young as 4, can bring projects and get help from mentors or just see what materials are available.

Executive director Samantha Cook has issues with toys and programs that try to steer play in a particular direction. When there are directions, kids tend to follow them, she said, even if they're told they can use elements of the toy in other ways. So while mentors can help, children or families must decide themselves what they want to make.

Katie Rast runs the Fab Lab, short for fabrication lab, in San Diego. There are Fab Labs around the world that aim to get advanced technology — makers or hackers tend to use open-source technology and open-ended materials — into the hands of everyday people.

Makers are innovators, and innovation is good for communities, Rast said. Cities flourish economically if they are seen as a place where start-ups do well. She said when local mom-and-pop shops thrive, entire economies get a jump-start. Many makers are mom-and-pop enterprises.

Real meaning of "hacked"

Hacking takes making seriously.

"The term 'hacking' has a bad rap," says a note on Curiosity Hacked's website. "Unfortunately, there are some who associate the term with illegal activity. Hacking is simply taking something — like an object or idea — and changing it to fit one's own need. … We are taking back the word 'hacking'!"

Hackers come from different backgrounds. Curiosity Hacked co-founder Shoshana Abrass' interests were supported in her high school, and she became a computer engineer. Cook, her colleague, however, loved math and science and making until high school, "in which really sad teachers basically told me that's not something girls do. I was the only girl in the science club. I was tolerated but eventually left because I wasn't encouraged at all." She moved into writing and art — "also making, with no one telling me that was wrong."

Cook taught for years and then ran education programs in museums. She figured out what helps kids grow intellectually and socially. Often, education's structure has little to do with how children actually learn, she said, so she shifted efforts to grassroots nonprofits. She loved it. Cook and her husband had long been in the maker movement, but she noticed a lot of that, too, consisted of "take this kit and end up with a robot" — still a formula. It was better, but still about conformity, she said. The Cooks, Abrass and others set out to build a program that let kids meet their own needs and interests.

Some maker/hacker programs are gender-specific. Not Curiosity Hacked, the founders of which wanted boys and girls to work together and see each other as capable. They also wanted boys to see capable women mentors.

Starting young

The scope of hands-on labs is huge, particularly for girls, Cook said. Girls are often familiar with sewing or some art, so they may be drawn to portraiture class or printmaking, "choosing things that make them comfortable." Efforts to move them into electronics and circuitry might be abrupt for some, "and that's not the most compassionate way to do it; not really the best way for the brain" to learn new skills, Cook said.

So her lab might offer textile sewing, enhanced by LED embellishments and conductive thread. The lab has also offered the chance to make wire sculptures where the joints need soldering — terrifying at first, but soon the joints start looking pretty good. Two or three projects later, Cook said, girls may be comfortable using simple electronic kits to build whatever their imagination dictates.

Girls exposed to making at age 8 are very open, as Brooks was. In middle school, they become self-conscious while boys become more bold and aggressive. That's why some maker programs for those ages are gender-specific.

"If girls have no interest in electronics, if that's the kind of maker they are, I am totally OK with that," Cook said. "I think it's important they be exposed to (more technical making), even if they are just in the same room with someone soldering. If they know they have the option, they make the choice."

Cook cares less about what children — even her own — grow up to be, and more about helping them fulfill their own vision. She wants them to be happy.

When Brooks and Chen met at Stanford, there weren't many females in the graduate engineering program. They found each other and realized they had a shared interest in creating toys that would promote the kind of capability and imagination Brooks had developed with her tools and Chen had found making complicated Lego structures with her brother.

They came up with Roominate, a building kit that lets kids decide what to make using any or all of the pieces, including a working fan. What becomes a house in one child's hand might be a bowling alley in another's.

Rast notes most kids know whether they'll pursue a technical career by about middle school: "There's something that clicks in those years; self-perception is a huge part of it," she said.

Americans are running a deficit in terms of young employees growing up interested in robotics, manufacturing, aerospace and other "maker" fields. We import workers, Rast said.

"If we can target students and get them to perceive themselves as being capable in things related to engineering, development, etc., they will be far more likely to pursue those things when they're older," Rast said. "And we as a country will be more likely to have enough homegrown workers."

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