Words from our Director of Education
Education inside a community makerspace overcomes many of the struggles of traditional education, including the propensity for overspecialization and isolation of content. It happens in schools that separate subject areas by hallways and in universities that use entire buildings to keep the humanities distanced from sciences. And with even more severity, entire institutions are used to keep the academic separate from the vocational. It’s an approach that has no doubt been successful in creating division between these worlds, generating pride in our overspecialization and resentment toward the others as we fail to communicate across boundaries. What we’re left with are specialists; programmed to perform specialized tasks when given specialized inputs. It has become commonplace for a practicing engineer to have never held a thermocouple or repaired a motor. People who are expected to design things are no longer expected to have built things and the result is a troubling lack of understanding. Rarely can the mechanical engineer work on their own failing automobile transmission, and rarely can the electrician program a simple microcontroller. Great thinkers and innovators need relevant hands-on experience to solidify their academic learning, and at Vector Space, we make it our goal to merge these worlds.
But to stop at what people can and can’t do in their isolated worlds would fall short of identifying a deeper problem. Worse is what we fail to even think about, let alone attempt to learn and understand. Consider the man-made inventions most important in your life, then imagine not having them. Clocks, clothes, pen and paper; most of us think of these things as trivial and unworthy of our attention until we don’t have them. This isn’t a new observation nor one that only plagues the uneducated. Carter G. Woodson recognized the problem a century ago, speaking of his highly educated peers, “Unless they happen to become naked they never think of the production of cotton or wool; unless they get hungry they never give any thought to the output of wheat or corn; unless their friends lose their jobs they never inquire about the outlook for coal or steel, or how these things affect the children whom they are trying to teach. In other words, they live in a world, but they are not of it.” Little seems to have changed; so few of us know anything about these items: where they come from, what they’re made of, how they’re made, why they’re made the way they are. When these simple things fail, or when their supply comes to a stop, as happened in post-war Japan, are you able to repair or recreate these essentials? War may be too extreme and unlikely a condition to motivate your learning, but such an unwelcome motivator shouldn’t be necessary. If we ignore the things our lives rely on, then what is worth our attention? Understanding how a shirt is made isn’t just important to aspiring fashion designers, it’s important to people who wear shirts, or pants, or clothes.
We have developed a series of camps for rising college freshmen from around the country that will bridge this divide, opening minds to a breadth of content, in a way that has lasting impact. The camps immerse students in a world that takes the time to consider how seemingly simple things are made, and in doing so recognize the deep connections that exist across disciplines. The camshaft in an engine has as much relevance to the sewing student as it does the automotive student, though traditionally only one of these students would receive this lesson. These educational experiences focus on making simple things from scratch, or as close to scratch as we can get. They require a variety of skills, led by top educators from around the country who bring different perspectives and approaches, attended by students from around the country with vastly different interests, visited by guest speakers ready to share a unique perspective on the world, interspersed with site visits to acquire materials from the source and wisdom from those around us, and topped by cultural evening experiences, led by a cultural guide, to remind us of the humanities in our communities and the importance of our communal engagement. These camps are designed to make makers: an experience with life changing impact.
Since 2015, Vector Space has been educating the public through maker education, an approach that deals not just in breadth of content, but also in experiences of deep engagement. This approach is one that sets high expectations and learns from failures, that demonstrates trust, that recognizes the importance of past experiences, of individuality, of history’s role in motivating learners, of the building of new knowledge upon old, the recognition of learning’s creeping pace, the construction of knowledge through tangible creation, the idea that knowledge should not be kept secret, and trust that students can take initiative, make decisions, and be accountable for results.
We have implemented these principles and refined our approach during the last four years, leading students in the creation of drones, capsules launched 150,000 feet into the atmosphere, projects that merged fashion with computer programming and electronics, the creation of custom bicycles and skateboards, and an autonomous boat that sailed the James River using computer vision. These are only a few among the dozens of maker education programs that we are proud to have developed and led. We have seen the impact these programs have on students: motivation toward further education, engagement in community, and a passion for knowledge. We hear it from our students and their parents, sometimes during the course of the project and sometimes years later. Most telling of all is when a handmade gift arrives on our doorstep, courtesy of a former student.
The trend toward isolation is deeply embedded in our culture and certainly not one to be blamed solely on our universities. Nevertheless, rising college students are pressured into this pattern more than anyone. They’re put into an environment that encourages specialization, surrounded by others studying the same content, taught by people focused solely on that content, seeking jobs that utilize that content. This is the time to impart a lasting reminder that there’s knowledge to be gained from every facet of life, and this knowledge has value beyond the laboratory in realms outside a single industry. But if we don’t take the time to recognize these connections, if we learn in isolation, we’ll build isolated minds and isolated lives. The things we rely on are important, they have lessons to teach us, ones that can open minds to connections, processes, and ideas never considered. To make them is to understand them, and it’s the first step in becoming someone who is of the world.