Blending High- and Low-Tech Worlds with a Maker-Driven Agenda

Blending High- and Low-Tech Worlds with a Maker-Driven Agenda

A Few Moments with Kylie Peppler

Over the past year, the maker movement has gained traction in the digital media and learning community thanks in part to Kylie Peppler, Assistant Professor of Learning Sciences at Indiana University, who is spearheading the DML Hub’s Make-to-Learn initiative with Creativity Labs. As part of the initiative, Peppler is leading the Make-to-Learn Youth Contest, an eight-week challenge for youth makers hosted on instructables.com, and the Make-to-Learn Symposium on March 13, 2013, the day before the Digital Media and Learning Conference in Chicago. Through these activities, Peppler and her colleagues hope to advance an ongoing conversation at the intersection of educational research and DIY culture. We sat down with Peppler to learn more about how arts education is progressing in the 21st century and what role maker culture will play in the structuring of future in-school environments.

What is it about the maker movement that appeals to a mass audience?

It kind of has that grassroots movement to it that we were all hoping for with so many other educational initiatives, and that's what really fascinates me. It has this universality with parents, with aunts and uncles, with grandparents, and with friends. There is a dad who helps his kids in the shop. There is an uncle who helps them modify cars and an aunt who shows them how to crochet. These traditions have survived within families. Then there is this return to the knitting and the woodshop. It’s starting to be something that we can talk about across the economic spectrum and across different cultures.

There is a group in Detroit that's doing bicycle repairs and another group in LA that converts cars to low riders. Making starts to be a reflection of those communities. There is a social identity about it within your particular form of making and yet you’re accepted in this larger community -- this umbrella of Make -- which is super cool. Teachers and educational organizations are beginning to see the power of this too because of how compelling it is to be able to pull even the most marginalized learners into the experience of schooling. In our work with MacArthur, for example, we talked with a lot of students from Chicago public schools who came from marginalized and disenfranchised communities. They all had Make stories.

With making, you can see the complexity of thought that goes into it. There’s something about having an artifact at the end. You are able to communicate without a standardized test score that you have learned something along the way. It really taps into the American ethos of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Do you have specific goals in mind for the Make-to-Learn Youth Contest?

This call serves multiple purposes, but the main purpose is just to illustrate that youth are makers. We want to get youth perspective on a question that a lot of adults are interested in right now. We want to bring in more of an ethnographic take by having the youth tell us directly what it is they are learning as opposed to getting insight from researchers about what they are learning. To find this out, we have posed four guiding questions to youth:

1) What did you make?
2) How did you make it?
3) Where did you make it?
4) What did you learn?

Across these questions, our goal is to better understand the story of what youth made and how it works. We’re trying to highlight learning in all the forms it can take. Ideally, youth can come to make connections between their learning experiences in the process of answering these questions. It is really refreshing to return to the youth themselves and ask them to articulate these insights and help us think about where future research can go. 

A lot of the projects have very rich stories. There is a boy from Sierra Leone who created his own radio network. There is really deep meaning behind what it is he made. There was another boy who has autism who made an electronic dog bowl for his dog because his family kept forgetting to feed the dog on a strict schedule. These are very personally meaningful objects, so often times there is a story to be told, not just in the beauty of the work, but in terms of how they were drawn to creating the piece

What are some of the learning outcomes of combining high- and low-tech materials?

Most DIY projects are a mix of high- and low-tech materials, as people are building things from scratch instead of manipulating something pre-fabricated. This really brings makers face-to-face with the base components of how something works and, as such, it offers an opportunity to explore the notion of visibility and invisibility in design. You can think about the iPad, for example. We all love it, but we don't really know what it looks like behind the scenes, or at most, very few people do. I’ve done a lot of work with e-textiles—garments and fabrics embedded with electronic circuits—and they are so interesting because they make all of those electronic components very visible and very tactile. 

You might have had an experience in grade school where you learned about circuits by using traditional kits, which include aluminum foil, a light bulb, and a battery. You used the foil to connect the battery and the light bulb together, and the light bulb comes on. This is the typical introduction to circuits in science education. It doesn't take long to have a really successful outcome. You get your light bulb to come on, and you move on. We count that as a hands-on experience, but we know that a lot of people have a basic misunderstanding about how electronics work.

In our work with e-textiles, there is that careful sewing of the circuits. Instead of using wire and tin foil, you are actually sewing those connections down. You’re thinking about the polarity of your LED. The direction of flow and electricity in your circuit is something you’ve never had to think about before. If a kid is putting that together, a lot of our early work in this area has shown us that youth are walking away with a stronger understanding of circuits than even some of our novice engineers and our graduate students. And those are very technical fields.

When you hear the phrase “arts education in the 21st century”, what do you envision?

In my vision, technology plays a central role, and digital media become something that we start to think about as a medium of expression. By designing with new media, technology ceases to be something static and immutable, but rather it’s something that we are constantly shaping and forming. The technologies that I have worked with are really good examples of that. Scratch allows kids -- on a deep level -- to create their own games and apps rather than always having to experience something that has been conceptualized by another designer. This begins to change the nature of the relationship between the child and the computer and the child and the digital artifact. Another tool that we see as a staple of arts education is the Arduino. With the LilyPad Arduino, we think about interactive physical media and integrating into our clothing and how we can make something smart and responsive. I’m not saying I want anything else to fade away, but we need to really teach children today about how to use these sort of new mediums and modes of expression towards their art making and their personal design process. And I argue that the arts class is the best place to introduce this way of thinking because it positions technology as something to create with, not just learn about.

How can we attach maker culture to in-school learning?

My colleagues and I have a three-book series coming out this year that addresses this exact issue. The series is designed for educators in both the formal and informal environment, and it encompasses all of the practices we have been learning across new media and media arts platforms -- video games, Scratch, e-textiles -- and brings them into educational spaces. We have been working with the National Writing Project and teachers across the country to test and refine this curriculum. The purpose of this series is to not only to get youth thinking about design, but also to get them to see the world as a set of interconnected systems. It is a very wonderful curriculum, and it has been designed with teachers every step of the way. It might sound high-level, but it is actually very approachable.

The work the kids are producing is also amazing -- everything from solar-powered backpacks to digital stories about systemic issues in their community to video game design. It really positions youth to play, and it’s our way to infuse that into education culture, making the central learning principles of the Quest schools in New York and Chicago accessible to everyone.

Since we started working with teachers, we have become very in-tune with what needs to happen in these in-school spaces. The books offer opportunities for reflection and also have a strong writing and science emphasis to them. Teachers need these connections so they can gain approval from their principals or administrations for the curriculum. They need to know how to get started, and they need to know what projects are suitable for their classrooms. We are also developing models of professional development. We are working with a couple of schools to use these volumes as a way to transform the school, and after a 30-minute introduction to Scratch, the teachers are off and using it. It doesn't take long. I am amazed, actually. We tend to be so scared of technology. We think we are going to have to spend months or even years getting people up to speed. But when we change the relationship between teacher and student, and we realize that we are all designing together, we can give teachers the resources to feel comfortable using these technologies in their classrooms.

How does someone with your background -- a classically trained artist -- find herself working with these new technologies?

It was a formative experience actually. I had an instructor in one of my college art classes, who one day was reviewing the figurative work I was doing. He was just looking at it with disdain. He basically told us that technology is a reflection of the 21st century, and if we weren’t using it in our work, we shouldn’t expect to see our pieces in the museum tomorrow. I was taken aback and was a bit insulted, but I took it on as a challenge. My professor probably thought I wasn't listening, but it turns out, I was! I told myself, if I am going to conquer this, I need to take my sculpture work and move it towards this media arts trajectory. Many folks in the industry talked about how they hired artists because of how they thought about programming not as a very technical activity, but as an expressive one towards a purpose. That’s the vision I have for computer science education and arts education. It’s really that merger of highly technical and highly artistic sensibilities.

Image credit: Courtesy of Kylie Peppler