PBS NewsHour does Maker Faire: "Can DIY Movement Fix a Crisis in U.S. Science Education?"

[Video Link]

PBS NewsHour aired a wonderful piece from Miles O'Brien on Maker Faire, the DIY culture event series with which many Boing Boing readers are familiar.

Some disclosures: I consider the Make magazine and Maker Faire folks friends (heck, Boing Boing founder Mark is the mag's editor-in-chief); I consider many of the exhibitors and attendees friends; I've covered Maker Faire myself for Boing Boing Video and for the blog—and finally, Miles is a friend, and I hung out with the NewsHour crew as they were shooting and producing this piece.

With all that out of the way, I encourage you to watch this story, which presents the case for Maker Faire as a potent antidote to the lack of truly engaging science and technology education in American schools. They've also managed to cram in more of the magic and wonder of Maker Faire than any TV coverage I've ever seen.

Video and transcript are here at the NewsHour website, and don't miss this out-take with Miles and "Mythbuster" Adam Savage. More on the conversation with Adam here.

Miles talks to Savage about the importance of encouraging kids to get their hands dirty and embracing a little danger. Can this movement replace shop class, and play a role in the so-called STEM crisis, we ask him?


  1. Can this movement replace shop class? The movement is shop class. With a bit of traditional chemistry and physics class thrown in.

    1. Most schools don’t even have a shop class anymore. Largely because it’s dangerous and the school is scared they’ll be sued when little johnny chops a finger off when he screws around with a power saw.

  2. I remember when I first discovered “Mythbusters” I was fascinated and a little inspired. But after watching the “Mythbusters” crew blow up their 100th car and eat their 400th Jalapeno pepper (“does the Scoville Scale really work?”) I finally decided that the “Mythbusters” are are 99% schtick and maybe only 1% science. If I had a kid I wouldn’t want them to be learning how to torch old Subarus and swallow pirahnas. Besides, is science really even a factor in today’s educational system(s)? It seems that Business continues to be the best post-graduate option.

    1. Zombie Feynman was right about this one: empiricism is the essence of science. Someone needs to tell kids that science is more than facts in a book, handed down from on high by learned old sages, and that certainly isn’t happening in most classrooms. Not when the teachers themselves often have minimal understanding and not much interest in science as a means of acquiring new knowledge and solving real-world problems that students are likely to encounter.

      Even when high school students are told to do lab experiments, the goal isn’t, “Make these measurements, and figure out what relationship exists between volume and pressure?” It’s, “Make these measurements, make some graphs, and see that the Boyle’s law really works.”

      When I took chemistry, we learned about flame tests and played with prisms as an introduction to spectroscopy. How much better would it be for students to come out of their high school science classes saying, “Now that I understand emission and absorption spectra, I see how global warming works,” instead of saying, “Well, copper burns blue-green, what good does that do me now that I’m a cashier?”

      1. “science is more than facts in a book…and that certainly isn’t happening in most classrooms”

        So, what you’re saying is that our only alternative is having two guys in Indiana Jones hats on TV teach our kids science? I mean, I learned a lot growing up from Captain Kangaroo when I was growing up but I also visited the library to bolster the Captain’s wise TV teachings.

    2. Actually, I think adam etc are pretty damn good at teaching science. If you watch carefully, they always use the following formula:
      1) Give background/observe
      2) Explain Test Modeling of Phenomenon
      3) Explain model assumptions, criteria for experimental success
      4) Run Experiment

      Their assumptions really blow sometimes with respect to physical science. However, their experimental methodology is pretty damn good! They also invite audience challenges to previous work all the time, and retest with new assumptions. In a nutshell, they get the two most important parts of science, 1) being curious about weird things, and 2) being systematic about testing your modeling of the weirdness.

      Kids will end up learning boyle’s law and thermodynamics and all that stuff in class. But personally speaking, I find their show to focus really well on the thought process behind designing an experiment, as opposed to high school labs where you just execute a crappy protocol you are not interested in.

      1. The last time I saw “Mythbusters” the two hosts had made exact rubber mask duplicates of each other’s faces and heads – the next day they proceeded to do a clever “test” which involved five or six unsuspecting fans of “Mythbusters” giggling and snorting when they discovered that the masked hosts were in fact wearing masks representing THE OTHER host. In other words, it was the old scientific switcheroo. I tell ya, the “Mythbusters” fellows are right up there with Edison and Ray Kroc.

  3. I finally decided that the “Mythbusters” are are 99% schtick and maybe only 1% science.

    That’s because they cut out a lot of the boring parts. :) Seriously it’s probably as close to “real science” as you’re likely to see on TV. Have an idea, test it, report.

  4. Kids are learning about recylcing at an early age. Maybe this will help inspire the next generation to pick up a screw driver and a wrench, instead of just throwing that broken lamp in the trash.

  5. “Can DIY Movement Fix a Crisis in U.S. Science Education?”

    I think the answer to this is “No, but I hope it does because what other choices do we have?”. I hope this inspires people to learn but that doesn’t excuse the US from not handling its under-funded education (education in general here, not just shop and science class!).

  6. There is no crisis in American science education. Rich, suburban schools in America are still the best in the world. Urban schools and highly latino neighborhoods are the worst in the world.

    That’s the difference between the property tax of a $500k house in a white flight neighborhood and the $50k house that’s been foreclosed on five times in the last ten years.

    1. @teufelsdroch:
      I don’t think crisis means what you think it means. The reason there is no problem in rich suburban America and there is a science education problem in other schools is the shortage of well-qualified science teachers at the K-12 level. To begin with, the US is not graduating enough people from college with BS degrees in science. And for those who do graduate, very few graduates with real science degrees, e.g chemistry, physics, even math, can afford to take the salaries offered at most public schools when the salary is compared with what is offered by industry. That is not true in the suburban districts you mention, and those are the schools where people with real degrees are teaching. They have the experience and knowledge to teach real inquiry. While I admire the “others” who fill the gap at less wealthy schools, they are rarely comfortable teaching science in a style we all know is productive. At best, they use a well-controlled curriculum so they can study up before hand and be ready for most of the questions that will arise. That is not an optimal learning environment for science.
      The answer is simple: pay competitive wages with industry. College degrees in real sciences are in demand.

      1. PS: Plenty of construction is going on in the suburban schools with strong science teachers. Again, it is those who are overwhelmed that are not doing this sort of thing.

      2. It is a common myth is that science teachers don’t teach inquiry because they are not qualified.


        That is not the case. One does not need exceptional qualifications (or a degree) to teach inquiry science.

        From a boots-on-the-ground perspective, science teachers don’t use inquiry because nobody in the chain of command–especially those writing the tests–knows what inquiry is. You can make a survey of those highly-qualified science teachers and I will guarantee almost none has even cracked the cover of the national science standards. It simply hasn’t gotten out of the universities.

  7. I’m not convinced the D.I.Y./“Maker” movement will change U.S. education, but I do believe a lot of the issues connected to science education have to do with the growth of the service economy and the death of the middle-class.

    I’m in my early 40s. I would never consider myself a “Maker” but I remember climbing up on the apartment building roof to rewire an aerial antenna when a storm blew the wires off. Or helped my dad string a clothesline in the building’s airshaft. If anything broke, we went to the hardware store to see if we could fix it. If we couldn’t we’d hold onto it for parts or throw it out. I’d find stuff discarded in the street and know how to fix it. When I scored a 5 1/4 floppy disk drive and needed a data cable, I let my “fingers do the walking” and found a service center in the Yellow Pages. Pulled out a map and physically mapped out where the place was in relation to nearby subway shops.

    That list can go on and on, but nowadays there is little incentive to fix things or even pursue fixing things. People see things as disposable. And not even in ways people think. Case in point: I scored a 5G iPod Video for $5. Had a cracked screen but the stoop sale person I bought it from had no idea what was wrong. The screen was cracked, but after a nice long charge it just worked fine!

    The point is the disposable consumer world we live in encourages consumption of items instead of repairing or fixing them. If there was still a middle-class that sense of “Well, we can’t afford a new thing, so we can fix this…” would still be around.

    There’s a larger societal issue here. And I think the D.I.Y./“Maker” movement is a good effort, but barely scratches the surface. I have neighbors who are terrified of changing light bulbs; how do they think light bulbs work? Magic?

  8. Even as a programmer, I learned much more about how computers work from classes where I wrote a program in assembly language and stepped through it in a virtual machine or made my own variable power supply or etched my own circuitboard. Alas, these classes were in college, where I already knew what I wanted to do. My personal opinion is that K-12 schools aren’t about practical education anymore and only dedicate themselves to teaching the absolute basics through an assembly line method of teaching. I was fortunate to have awesome teachers growing up, but most students aren’t so lucky.

  9. I met Frank Wilson during a book tour for the paperback release of his book “The Hand”. It’s well known that the best time to learn languages is as young as possible. The ability to physically manipulate things is best learned early too. By the end of high school a window closes on becoming really adept at it.
    Wilson had a fight with his publisher re putting his email address in the book. He won and heard from people all over the country. A man running a repair shop in San Diego said the young people looking for work just didn’t have the basic ability to do the work and that learning for them was painfully slow. There are consequences to killing off shop classes.
    I also think that the sooner you get into practical problem solving, the quicker you learn. Lectures date to when the teacher had the only copy of the book and dictated the contents to his students.

  10. Gotta comment on a different part of the post, and maybe this is too “meta” but I don’t really think Boing-Boing contributing editors really need to post all those “friendship” disclaimers for a post like this. If you want to, that’s fine – but I don’t think you’re trying to sell me a ticket for Maker Faire, or a unicorn, or any of a zillion other things BB editors post about. I know you’re making money from the ads (well, I hope you are anyway), but I don’t get the feel that BB editors are posting things to give their buddies a hand or merely to draw viewership, so I don’t see a requirement for the disclaimers (and as I said long ago in this too-rambling post – if you still want to, that’s OK too).

  11. The “political” headline is beside the point — Dale Dougherty and Make and MakerFaire are doing cool stuff that makes kids WANT TO LEARN — which certainly cannot hurt the effort to “fix” schools in America.

    Incidentally, PBS started their own spinoff of Mythbusters/MAKE/Junkyard Wars called DESIGN SQUAD NATION. BoingBoing should be linking to it EVERY DARN DAY.


    1. I also remember a show on PBS that made science more interesting for me when I was younger — Newton’s Apple.

      Maybe it wasn’t as cool as Mythbusters might be today, but Newton’s Apple sure explained the boring subject matter in a more entertaining way than my science teachers ever could.

  12. I saw this segment & while I liked the really engaging footage of Maker Faire, I thought it made a pretty crappy argument that this represents any kind of a solution to the “crisis” in math & science education. Maybe Maker Faire can do this, but the segment didn’t show any kind of application of mathematical or scientific concepts, just a lot of making stuff. Which is cool, and is a great end in itself – it might well be a solution to the “crisis” in kids being complacent and help expand their horizons beyond video games and facebook. But since part of our education crisis is the generally low value U.S. culture places on education and intellect in general (despite the crisis-rhetoric), the footage of kids saying that they didn’t apply ideas from their science class, that that is “boring science” and this is “fun science,” didn’t exactly fill me with jubilation.

  13. Fantastic piece, Xeni! Please share Maker Faire’s deep appreciation of the quality of the story with Miles. Best, Sabrina

  14. I teach high school math and blog at http://www.TeacherThink.com

    I am intrigued by “makers” and would love to find ways to integrate “making” into my Algebra class. This is easier said than done, as the students also need to grasp the fundamentals of Algebra before applying it…or do they?

    Jeff @TeacherThink

  15. I’m big on science education, and a lifelong DIYer. BUT I don’t think DIY passes as science education. It does help students understand using a logical process to arrive at a goal (building a kit), or one step up, experimenting with various ways of *accomplishing a process*, encouraging creativity.

    If science education were about presenting kids with lab problems to solve, and either giving them a cookbook or letting them design an approach to a solution, then yes.

    But mostly, it’s not about empiricism. A lot of science education has to be about just mastering abstract material, in quantity. It’s not possible for students (until they’re quite advanced) to verify the materials, themselves. It’s the same way in math, and in English, where it’d be neat to “discover the rules of grammar and punctuation” but ultimately THE TIME ISN’T THERE for all that discovery.

    I’m far from saying that discovery isn’t wonderful, but the point of it is to reinforce the understanding that discovery CAN be used to arrive at most of these concepts… so that students who don’t have time TO DO all the science have insight into the history and approaches that got us where we are today.

  16. I have just read thru the comments. Hey ..listen up. There is a message here. Passive leisure behavior is spilling out into the classroom and our culture. Makers are not in competition with schools and teachers….This Maker movement is inspiring and a waking up of youth. Don’t be afraid.Take a look or attend before you exclude this opportunity for kids to engage themselves in making, inventing failing and having fun. This original thinking process is as important as learning the scientific method….but from within the child’s mind.

  17. “Can DIY Movement Fix a Crisis in U.S. Science Education?”
    Sure! As long as the kids can come-up with the admission fees to Maker Faires.

  18. Great post Xeni. I too saw the NewsHour segment and have been following the movement for a long time. I’m of the age where we used John Muir’s How to Fix your Volkswagen for the complete idiot (me) as the bible and it worked by making car mechanics more accessible.

    For at least one set of roots of the makers movement check out The Whole Earth Catalog and all of the associated publications Brand, Kahn, and others did.

    The only thing that bothered me about Miles’ piece was that I think it was put together backwards: the case for making engineering more accessible should have been made first, then the makers movement shown as one possible way to help it happen for people with visual/hands on learning styles.

    Hands on learning isn’t for everyone just like book learning isn’t for everyone. The problem with American education is that we design it for book learners so hands on types don’t do well (except in shop class). But, the answer isn’t to cater more to hands on types, the answer is to have many ways in and not rank them one better than another.

  19. “His field is bio-mechanics and he says ‘now I look at animals the way I looked at those refrigerators’.”

    So he compares animals to inanimate objects and disassembles them? Are animals are just a combination of parts to be tinkered with by humans? As someone who supports the maker movement I find this revolting. This is not what science should be about, teaching people to be indifferent to the lives of others and other species. The fact that Doughtery laughs about this is so disturbing. Reminds me of the horror stories of Victorian-era experiments of animals being vivisected. We’ve made no progress.

  20. I’m a science communicator who has been working in the UK and Australia for the last five/six years or so. I’ve always been interested in the maker movement and have wondered how it could be useful in teaching STEM concepts in “non-traditional” environments.

    I’ve been kicking around an idea in my head for an aggregator/wiki where stuff like this is collected in a central location for access by communities and schools. Something like an open-source science centre, which would include lesson plans, demonstration guides and even instructions for the building of low-or-no cost scientific apparatus (everything from “tie a couple of sticks together” to “here’s how to repurpose an old stereo”)

    As a quick straw poll: does anyone think that this would be useful? or would it be redundant seeing as we already have stuff like the makers, etc?

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