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

June 29, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Miles O'Brien reports from a gathering in California on a growing movement that embraces the art of making cool things and a quirky do-it-yourself spirit. Supporters see "making" as one way to overcome a crisis in American science and math education.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, making the stuff of science and making learning about it more fun for kids.

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien shows us how.

MILES O’BRIEN: At first blush, it all seems so typically suburban. But, if you want to keep up these Jones, you best stock up on propane, power tools, and polymers. They are the DeRoses of San Rafael, Calif., dad Tony, and his sons, 17-year-old Sam and 12-year-old Joseph.

They are superstars of a vibrant, growing subculture called the maker movement, which celebrates, venerates the art of designing and building really cool things.

When we met them in their garage workshop, they were hard at work trying to top the fire-breathing dragon they made last year with a complex superhero suit brimming with lights, wired for sound, and complete with an arm cannon. The character is Samus from the video game “Metroid.”

With any luck, it will look something like this. They admit it’s gotten a little out of hand.

TONY DEROSE, maker: The projects started small, and with the advent of Maker Faire, we started scaling up a little bit, and now it’s completely out of control.

(LAUGHTER)

MILES O’BRIEN: Out of control is the word.

Do you guys feel like things snowball in this garage?

TONY DEROSE: Oh, yes.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes?

JOSEPH DEROSE: Yes.

SAM DEROSE: For sure.

MILES O’BRIEN: But for makers, out of hand is what it’s all about.

And that’s the driving force behind the annual Maker Faire.

And what do you scream when you scream? You scream faster, right? Do it.

(SCREAM)

(LAUGHTER)

MILES O’BRIEN: For five years now, makers from all over the San Francisco Bay area have flocked to the San Mateo Event Center in the spring show off their latest do-it-yourself creations. It’s a county fair for clever techno-nerds.

The people and the projects run a wild, wacky gamut, six-foot-long battleships shooting at each other with live ammo, DIY surveillance drones, and a giant talking giraffe, just to name a few.

VOICE: I am the electric giraffe.

MILES O’BRIEN: Maker Faire is billed as an event to celebrate arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the do-it-yourself mind-set.

This is the kind of place where it wouldn’t even faze you to see a rolling cupcake, like this one. But if you’re at home right now saying why, you are kind of missing the point. The real question is, why not?

The fair sprung from the bible of this mind-set, the quarterly magazine called “Make.” The pages are filled with cool do-it-yourself projects from cool do-it-yourselfers.

Dale Dougherty is inventor of “Make” and Maker Faire and is an evangelist for the gospel of geekdom.

We are in a “Kids, don’t try this at home” society, right?

DALE DOUGHERTY, “Make”: We are, absolutely. Read about it. Watch it. Let’s play a video or let’s just do it digitally. And I think what we’re seeing is that kids are disengaged.

MILES O’BRIEN: The “Make” offices in Sebastopol, Calif., are brimming with contraptions that have been featured in the magazine, toothbrush bots, mechanical insects and repurposed alarm clock that shuts off when blasted with a phaser gun — the ultimate snooze button.

I want to sleep. I want to sleep some more. I want to sleep.

It may look like a lot of silliness, but Dougherty is on a mission to remind Americans that it is fun to build things, or, for that matter, take them apart.

DALE DOUGHERTY: I see making as a gateway to engineering and science. When I talk to engineers and scientists, I can ask them, what fascinated you as a kid?

And someone said, well, you know, I used to take refrigerators apart.

(LAUGHTER)

DALE DOUGHERTY: And he’s a — he’s a — his field is biomechanics. And he says, now I look at animals the way I looked at those refrigerators.

MILES O’BRIEN: Which is what sparked the young maker movement. Kids like these sixth-graders are mentored by adult makers to design and build something cool and fun, in this case, a seesaw that pumps water.

By this time, we were getting the spirit, so we gave them a camera to make their own video diary.

STUDENT: Now we’re figuring out how long the handle should be in order that you don’t squash your knees.

MILES O’BRIEN: Kid stuff, right? Well, not entirely.

Dale Dougherty sees it as a way to tackle a big, simmering national problem. American kids are not doing well in science and math, and the numbers are not pretty. In a math and science exam given to students all over the world in 2009, U.S. kids placed 25th in math and 17th in science. Numbers like that are prompting concern at the highest levels in Washington.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is unacceptable to me, and I know it’s unacceptable to you, for us to be ranked, on average, as 21st or 25th, not with so much at stake. We don’t play for second place here in America. We certainly don’t play for 25th. So, I have set this goal: We will move from the middle to the top in math and science education over the next decade.

MILES O’BRIEN: But how to make that happen?

The administration is primarily relying on the private sector to step up to the plate. And Maker Faire fits the bill. In fact, one of President Obama’s top science advisers was here at the Maker Faire with his kids.

We caught up with Tom Kalil near a giant, water-spraying swing set.

TOM KALIL, Office of Science and Technology Policy: One of president’s goals is to get more young girls and boys excited about what’s called STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math. And I believe that the maker movement, the maker culture is a really powerful way of doing that.

MILES O’BRIEN: Maybe so. And there is some reason to believe the make movement is taking root in schools, filling the void that was left when shop classes vanished a generation ago.

At Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, science teacher Aaron Vanderwerff has, true to form, done it himself. He created a class where high school kids design and build projects for the Maker Faire.

So, were you impressed with their ideas?

AARON VANDERWERFF, Lighthouse Community Charter School: I was impressed that — I was mostly impressed with the fact that they were all excited about their ideas.

It can help the students learn science content. And it can also help the students become the innovators of tomorrow. The hope is, they go on to their lives and maybe, a couple of years down the road, oh, you know, I could actually build this thing, because I know that I can do that. Or, in the extreme — more extreme case, they go become an engineer or a designer.

MILES O’BRIEN: At the very least, they get a chance to see what is inside some familiar items, to get a sense of how they work.

“Guitar Hero,” like I have never seen it before, “Guitar Hero” exposed. Alex hopes he can kludge this “Guitar Hero” into a robot controller.

And Lorena and Daniela hope to turn these old bikes into a surrey for two. Working with some mentors, they got to work, hoping to be done in time for the fair.

JORGE CUEVAS, student: So I’m trying to do a Rube Goldberg machine. This is actually the start of it. I’m — as I go, I’m going to continue it. So…

MILES O’BRIEN: So you haven’t drawn it out?

JORGE CUEVAS: No, I have not.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re just doing — it’s freeform engineering.

JORGE CUEVAS: Yes.

MILES O’BRIEN: And you don’t know where it’s going to lead you?

JORGE CUEVAS: No.

MILES O’BRIEN: Of course, in the short term, it led him here — 90,000 came to the Maker Faire this year, a record. Organizers are now running fairs in Detroit and New York as well, and are working on franchising the idea, so any community can join the fun.

And what about good old shop class? Dale Dougherty is taking on that fight as well. He has created a kit and some plans for what he calls maker sheds. He is hoping they will start popping up near schools all across the nation, “Johnny Solder-seed,” if you will.

So, you’re a little bit subversive, aren’t you?

DALE DOUGHERTY: I want kids to be subversive. I want — in the best possible light.

MILES O’BRIEN: When we met the DeRoses on game day morning at Maker Faire, you could cut the tension with a ray gun. They had barely slept in days — no quick changes in a phone booth for this superhero. Suiting up is a 20-minute physical and technical ordeal.

BOY: I love this suit.

MILES O’BRIEN: What’s it like seeing people’s reactions?

TONY DEROSE: Oh, it’s great. We have been following him, and just the surprise on people’s faces. And, first, it’s sort of a look of recognition. Then they’re like, did you make that? And you can see his chest kind of puff up a little bit, and he walks a little bit happier. So…

MILES O’BRIEN: And what about the high school students in Aaron Vanderwerff’s class? Well, frankly, it was a mixed bag. For Jorge, the Rube Goldberg idea didn’t gel according to plan. Well, actually, the problem was, he didn’t have a plan. And therein lies his lesson learned.

JORGE CUEVAS: Starting off with an idea and then trying it out, and it doesn’t work, that’s really frustrating.

MILES O’BRIEN: But for Alex, the “Guitar Hero” robots were a winner.

STUDENT: I have never really done anything like this, so it was kind of nice to actually see an idea of mine that’s kind of crazy actually come together and work.

MILES O’BRIEN: And Lorena and Daniela did manage to weld together those bikes into a working surrey.

And what about team water-totter? Frankly, I wasn’t sure this one would ever come together, but they proved me wrong.

MILES O’BRIEN: Does this make you more interested in studying science?

STUDENT: No.

MILES O’BRIEN: No?

(LAUGHTER)

MILES O’BRIEN: Why not?

STUDENT: It’s a lot different.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes?

STUDENT: Yes. This is fun science, and that’s boring science sometimes.

MILES O’BRIEN: Oh.

Music to Dale Dougherty’s ears: science, engineering and math cleverly disguised as a ton of fun with friends.

DALE DOUGHERTY: I want them to see how they can learn doing things. You know, what can you build? And if — if you think about it as a progression, you sort of naturally want to do more interesting things and acquire more skills, more knowledge to do that.

MILES O’BRIEN: Makers also learn that education doesn’t begin or end at the schoolhouse door. A lot can be learned behind a garage door as well. And you just never know what it might spark.