A Summer of Tinkering, Hacking, and Inventing

In the universe, there are certain constants. Death, taxes, the speed of light, Marley is dead, 42 is the answer, and I have an intense physical aversion, nay, violent hatred, for spending my summers lollygagging about in pursuit of a three month “chill sesh,” to use the young folks term for it. This summer, after two summers of college classes and a visit to Maker Faire Detroit 2012, I applied for a position as a member of the Maker Corps Program at The Henry Ford, supported by the Maker Education Initiative, a project of the Tides Center. The Maker Corps program provides members and supplies to host sites throughout the country to carry out hands-on, make-related programs.

I had no idea what I was getting into.

I was brought in as the STEM guy in Maker Corps at The Henry Ford. All those hours building, competing with, and sharing the joys with FIRST Robotics Teams, the years of obsessively compiling a mental compendium of guitar pedals, synthesizers and audio equipment, and a relatively recent desire to help others wave their geek flag high all came together. In April I started my Maker Corps training under the guidance of Maker Ed’s Steve Davee, Lisa Regalla, and The Henry Ford’s Education and Learning team who, over the course of 8 weeks shared countless tips and tricks for sharing making with all age groups.

Every week, as part of our training, we were assigned a project based on the contents of a “Possibility Box,” which, upon first sight, was little more than a mish-mash of toothbrushes, Play-Doh, markers, a sewing kit, some electronics, and some other stuff. In our first week’s training, we were told to make something/anything with a sewing kit, a hot glue gun, and some construction paper. Five hours later, I had sewn two pieces of felt together and was immensely proud of myself, so much so that I took a picture and posted it on the Maker Corps Google+ Community. My project was going to be a couple of armbands that I would wear that weekend at a FIRST competition. It was an overwhelming success! It even led to a fantastic bonding moment with Mary Foulke, my fellow Maker Corps member who could probably knit a sweater in her sleep. The first time we met, she couldn’t believe that it could take 45 minutes just to thread a needle, but that’s how long it took me! A few weeks later, I was able to combine music and Tetris for a project using the MaKey MaKey (a board that allows you to control a computer with literally anything – bacon, fruit, guitars, pets, unsuspecting bystanders, etc.).

The contents of the “Possibility Box ."

The contents of the “Possibility Box .”

Tetris is, in the pantheon of all-consuming obsessions, not exactly unique. Partaking in its ecstasy-inducing pleasures has always been a solo endeavor. After studying the Maker movement, where so much is based on community and working together, I decided it was time for Giant Team Tetris, wherein it is too much work for one person to play the game, turning it into a group sport. Giant Team Tetris made its debut at the May Tinker. Hack. Invent. Saturday, an event where local makers of all kinds are invited to Henry Ford Museum to tell their stories and show how they make things. And it was fantastic! All manner of people, young and old, enjoyed this new take on a classic game.

Young visitors had their teamwork skills tested and needed to communicate playing Giant Team Tetris if they wanted to succeed.

Young visitors had their teamwork skills tested and needed to communicate playing Giant Team Tetris if they wanted to succeed.

Soon after, I started keeping office hours in the education department, researching the best ways to teach innovation in STEM fields, and how The Henry Ford can promote making with its exhibits and programs. Digging through the various programs offered by my fellow Maker Corps host sites, I developed a profound understanding of the differences between historical, science, and children’s museums, and found a truly incredible range of programs, thoughts and ideas pertaining to making for all ages.

Although I learned much from my research, there’s still nothing like working with the public. The June Tinker. Hack. Invent. Saturday featured the Maker Corps members hosting a make-and-take activity with artbots. Artbots are in many ways the epitome of Maker philosophy boiled down into three rubber bands, an electric toothbrush, 3 inch pool noodle, and four markers. Most of the time, after putting an artbot together, you turn it on and the vibration of the toothbrush causes it to spin around in a circle, drawing a whole bunch of circles that intersect with one another. Sometimes, however, the identical combination of parts results in artbots, chaotically bouncing around and making awful circles that are actually amazing fractals and dotted lines. The expressions of wonder and joy on people’s faces made all the planning for this event worth it. Knowing that you created a unique art-making device is a powerful feeling and hopefully it inspired others to realize the power of making.

The movement and the patterns of an artbot can be mesmerizing.

The movement and the patterns of an artbot can be mesmerizing.

In early July, the Maker Corps members led activities at The Henry Ford’s Aspiring Innovators summer camp. I assisted the campers in making Theremins based on the popular integrated circuit chip, the 555 timer. We went through the whole process of assembling the different electronic components on the breadboard and…none of them worked. I’d like to say that I had planned it all along, to show that a failed project isn’t a worthless project, but I didn’t. Instead, we all experienced it together. For me, the important thing with any given project is not so much that it works, but that I learn something from it, and I was hopefully able to impart that lesson to the whole group of campers. After we had finished, one of them came up and asked a whole mess of questions about electronics and how to learn more. That single interaction, which lasted for maybe 10 or 15 minutes, is a perfect example of why I love sharing STEM with people. I don’t know what that camper is going to do with the rest of his life. The important thing is that I was able to share what I’m passionate about with him and that I may have guided him towards finding his calling in life.

Failure is a part of innovation and we all experienced it building Theremins.

Failure is a part of innovation and we all experienced it building Theremins.

I applied for this job when I saw the posting on the Maker Faire Detroit Facebook page. Were it not for me liking that page in the afterglow of Maker Faire Detroit 2012, none of what I’ve recapped here would’ve happened, so I guess you could say that Maker Faire is fairly important to me. And let’s be real here, any place with tricked out power wheels racing, replica time machines built by robotics teams that also make cupcake go carts, 3D printers spilling out in every direction, Raspberry Pi’s and Arduinos and BeagleBoards (oh my!) is a good place to be. When I signed on as a Maker Corps member, it was mentioned that I might be displaying at Maker Faire Detroit. On the outside I kept cool and collected, but on the inside I was doing the victory dance to end all victory dances. I knew exactly what I wanted to show: my eurorack modular synthesizer. Her name is Eve. I did have some doubts, thinking that people wouldn’t necessarily be interested in an instrument that I did not design and build from the component level up. Well, I was wrong. There was a constant stream of people who came by to listen to the synthesizer and hear me explain it. I had to almost run to get away from my display when I had off-moments to check out fellow Makers! I had an absolute riot, met a bunch of fantastic and wonderful people, networked with other makers, earned two “Maker of Merit” ribbons, and definitely earned the 14 hours of deep, comatose sleep I experienced Sunday night.

The summer of 2013 was the summer of tinkering, hacking, inventing, sharing, networking, nearly falling out of my chair in the workroom, and above all, realizing that I, along with makers everywhere, am helping to create a can-do culture, driven by hands-on learning experiences.

Bubba Ayoub was a 2013 Maker Corps intern at The Henry Ford.

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