My personal approach is to use embedded controllers to create autonomous robots and I start by bread-boarding discrete components into circuits. I find that the students that I work with have a greater understanding of how things fit together, how currents mesh and they have greater success trouble shooting failed circuit board. We progress to controller specific boards that allow students to focus more on software and less on fixing failed hardware but they understand that when problems occur, they could be from power, hardware, software and they have a solid approach to troubleshooting the problem. Your approach may vary, but there is common ground in the Maker Movement.
So what does a Mentor for Makers do and how can the engineering community help the movement? By becoming mentors and teachers, seeking out school programs and robotics clubs and making themselves available to kids, engineers and technicians can become the engines of the movement. Perhaps the more difficult thing to do is to be willing to hold back and accept the creative process. It has been said that engineers are too focused on solutions that they know will work to allow kids to dream. One of the criticism that I have voiced here before is that engineers tend to show kids the 'Elegant Solution' and then proceeding to explain why it is so good. It is hard to let kids discover in their own way, especially when you know that they are wrong and can never succeed in the way they are trying. If you can let them fail, you might be surprised when they discover a solution that you, as a professional had not thought of. More likely though, they will fail but they will have the satisfaction of knowing that they did it themselves and they will learn one more way not to try something. In this way, they may develop a sense that it is fun to create and that it is something that they want to pursue.
You have probably heard the quote from Bill Gates that “Success is a lousy teacher,” because it gives a false sense of the ease with which problems are solved. Mentoring kids is difficult. It requires some faith in the human spirit to allow them to move forward with an idea even if we can’t imagine their idea succeeding. It may fail, but it is the process that we want to encourage. Still, I don’t think that we should give incorrect information, just hold back when we ‘Know’ the answer. Where safety is an issue, we should draw a line but intentionally overloading transistors until they fail is, in my opinion, a great learning experience. I hope this has given you some encouragement to go out and help out a group or individual in their pursuit of all of this really cool, empowering technology. Drop me a line if you have questions about setting up centers and please correct me if I have incorrectly quoted or misstated the facts about the movement. These are my opinions but I am always willing to listen. See you in the trenches!
David Peins, M.Ed.
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