Speaking to the National Academy of Sciences on Monday ( 11/23/09 ), President Obama announced the STEM initiative. There was a lot of good research and outreach done by the executive administration prior to this speech, and there’s a bunch of really great stuff coming from this initiative. I am honestly impressed with both the scope, and execution of this policy push. If you haven’t already done so, please by all means look up what is planned and get involved. That being said though, I think there is a very big mistake being made here. It’s a mistake that’s been made time and again as our policy makers either in the government or academia address issues involving the education of Americans. At the end of the day, you cannot expect to bring about sweeping reform simply by increasing the availability of resources and stressing the value of education to young kids. It helps, and it’s necessary stuff, but at the end of the day it just won’t work because it’s too narrow a scope.
Kids, before they enter say high school, are defined in a very large way by their parents / guardians. They start out life learning from one person or set of persons… their parents. Everything that happens to them from then on is always done with the belief that their parents know what is right and what is wrong. They implicitly regard the actions of their parents as being for lack of a better word, righteous. It’s not so difficult to see the parallels in religious dogma that defines morality and the strength of the bond between parent and child. As children enter grade school and move onto middle school, their lives are impacted heavily by what their family does first and foremost. If the family likes to watch TV after dinner together, these kids are going to grow up wanting to watch TV together with their kids. There’s nothing wrong with that either. It’s one way of living. If your dad didn’t jog with you in the morning, establishing that routine is harder. People grow up and make changes to what makes them well… them… and that’s awesome, but if you intend to get kids to take advantage of resources being made available to them you are going to need to get their gatekeepers to open the door for them. TV adverts, and school trips are only going to go so far.
And that’s where I see an opportunity for both libraries and hacker spaces. STEM should start with encouraging adults to get involved in science, technology, engineering, and math. We’re not expecting parents to teach their kids calculus and make it sound fun. That’s so far from what needs to be done here. What kids and parents and everyone else needs is an understanding of how STEM is a part of all our lives. How it’s fun, creative, and not just painful math. If you can get a cadre of parents and big brothers/sisters together and instill in them the desire to learn and make, they will in turn share that love and probably their own skill sets with kids. What’s most important here is that kids see their role models actively engaged in STEM pursuits… even on a small scale level. We don’t need parents sitting down and showing kids how to build UAVs with their kids ( though most teenagers would certainly enjoy the potential havoc they could reap with such knowledge ). But getting a parent involved in wood working, model cars / planes, or rocketry is a great way to get kids to work with their hands. Demystify technology and as their expertise grows and begins to hit the boundaries of real engineering they will want to use this wonderful resources STEM initiatives provide. Just getting your kids to the point where they are passionate about a skill or craft and giving them the belief in themselves that they can “get this” with enough patience and tolerance for failure is worth far more than any other lesson. Hacker spaces do this every day for adults. Our most popular classes are introductory courses to electronics, computer aided design, diy biology. People need a hand seeing what they are capable of in fields that pique their curiosity. They need to know that they aren’t too stupid, or ordinary. They need to know that most genius is just a matter of dedication to a pursuit and that even without that dedication, you can still accomplish amazing things just by being human.
Now you are probably sitting there thinking, well shit I had no idea hacker spaces could do that, and I’m still skeptical, BUT I just KNOW that no library does that. Well, odds are either your local library sucks, or you do. And I’m not trying to be mean, I’m just trying to remind you that your library belongs to you. You put time into it as a community and it can be great. That’s the great thing about our library system. They engage their community. They want you to use their facilities. In fact, most of them are DYING to help people ( sadly, quite literally ). In theory, libraries exist to further the education of our population. In practice, they do a lot more. In most communities libraries provide access to critical resources such as free internet access, and classes on a variety of basic skills that people need or want desperately. I can’t tell you how many times the NY Public Library has reached out to NYC Resistor literally begging for us to help them run electronics workshops for kids.
Now you may be thinking, well that’s awesome hacker spaces and libraries working together to save the day, lets make this happen! Well, not so fast buddy. Now you are being as naive as Obama is being about targeting the proverbial “next generation”. There’s a lot going on here, we need to think about this. Public Libraries are a public service, which means they are bound to certain policy standards. Hackerspaces are well, not public services, and take advantage of that fact liberally. What sometimes allows hackerspaces to come off as looking great is that they are not widely known. The people who generally know about hackerspaces and show up to engage us in their own pursuits do so because they are already on some level aware of the culture there. We also reserve the right to throw people out of our facilities if we feel that people are acting as an impediment to our goals of learning, making, or sharing. A public service has a much more difficult problem in that regard. What happens there is a major disparity in level of general knowledge existing between different members of an introductory class? What happens when there is a culture clash between participants? How do you deal with the inevitable opportunist who attempts to take advantage of your position as a public service? A lot of the reasons today that people don’t take advantage of “free” workshops that the NYPL operates is tied to the community engagement itself. People have their own agendas, and some folk, well meaning or not will try to use the public library as their personal base of operations to further their own goal… and they will fight viciously for every resource in their desire to better the world through their own perverse view of what better is. In NYC, I’ve seen several great institutions gutted by “community action groups”. Look at Independent Media for instance. What started as a peer to peer news reporting service, soon became a protest network parading around pretending to be a news source. They are as bad as Fox News, in their own weird fashion and because of that what was once a really great idea is now a festering pit of personal ambitions.
So, how do you engage such a broad spectrum of society. In theory a community is already somewhat homogeneous, and in some places it is. But in NYC, my geographic community contains such a dazzling array of peoples, languages, educational backgrounds, and much more diversity. Which is totally awesome, but also very difficult to work with in a pursuit such as this. So you need to make sure that what you do can engage a diverse crowd. At Make:NYC, we’ve done fairly well finding some ways to engage people in projects that not only get them excited about making, but also allows a safe and controlled environment for people to form relationships. We don’t want to deal with drug dealers showing up to a class on electronics just because it’s a great place to avoid narcotics officers, we don’t want people stealing equipment from our hacker space because they need the money, and we just don’t want people using libraries as a day care center. These are all things that people do, in spite of the abject wrongness of it. How do you serve the primary goal of educating the populous while at the same time enforcing a minimum level of social decorum? If you are a public service, such as the NYPL or the DMV that means bullet proof glass, police patrols, and a number of other methods that are well, utterly detrimental to establishing an environment that is conducive to the goal of education. So, can we trust the NYPL as a public service to do this job?
Well, libraries have resources and A LOT of them. They are in every town and community already, just like your local post office. They do have a fairly capable work staff, NYPL librarians are some of the finest people I have ever had the enjoyment of interacting with, and that’s vital to an effort such as this. They’ve got the experience in doing a bunch of stuff really well, and a bunch of stuff well… not so well. And they’ve got the clout and legal entrenchment to easily carve out a niche to do the sort of stuff we want to do, in a government culture that is traditionally, truly uncompromising in their hatred of anything open and engaging to the general populace. So, there’s a bunch of things that are AWESOME here.
But, there’s some not so awesome stuff. They are very much a product of government bureaucracy, which means uniformed police patrols, horrendous design, hamstringed effectiveness due to bloated and restrictive policies, and so much more skull splitting headache inducing red tape. They are still operating on the model of “we got books!” and “wow VHS section!” Great for reference, not so great for education. And there’s no real desire to engage people beyond the old “book learning”, at least in terms of resource allocation.
Okay Libraries are cool. And you probably see some of what I am talking about, and have your own views. Cool we can debate the merits of libraries later, lets look at hackerspaces. Hackerspaces have facilities for “doing”. In fact, I once remarked to Dale Dougherty that they were best described as “libraries for doing.” I really like that statement ( tooting my own horn or not! ) Hackerspaces focus on enabling people in accomplishing specific goals in the areas of STEM. It’s practical learning, not book learning ( though we do that too ). Now, hackerspaces are like private clubs. They have a very select membership, if only as a by product of being a product of involvement by a very highly skilled and generally well to do community of technical people and artisans. Make no mistake, hackerspaces have been successful across the board largely because they have an all star team of movers and shakers who contribute actively to them, even with the most adverse designs on earth many of these places would succeed simply through shear force of will and talent alone.
That being said, lets look at what a hackerspace brings to the “public service” arena. Hackerspaces are building machine shops, and lab environments in local communities that provide individuals with access to resources they would not otherwise be able to afford ( even if they are pretty well off ). Hackerspaces have a talented and close knit community of supporters. Due to the connectivity of our internet enabled society we now have a growing worldwide network of spaces sharing in their development of design patterns and class pedagogy. We’re getting very good at teaching others how to run hackerspaces, and how to teach others just to get involved in our own unique areas of STEM.
That’s some of the good stuff. Let’s look at some of the “bad” stuff for public service. Most spaces are somewhat exclusionary, even if it’s just in that it costs money to be involved, sometimes a fairly large amount. Many spaces have legal concerns that prevent them from engaging younger people, or doing certain workshops. The community surrounding hackerspaces is fairly homogeneous so a lot of what we’ve learned over the past few decades ( or years for most ) is not going to transfer, or will do so with growing pains. Management of these spaces is usually very much a democratic process, bringing them onto the national stage will force people to consider things such as representative management, and generic policies… both of which simply do not work on a community level as well and will alienate the current community. Thus far hackerspaces have not had to deal with predatory membership or the forced open door policies that go hand in hand with being a truly “public” facility.
Okay, so you see some opportunities for libraries here I am sure. Let’s put some technological resources in libraries. Give them the ability to be more practical in the resources they offer people for self education. That’s easy, sort of. MIT has been working for the past few years putting Fablabs up throughout the country in urban and underprivileged neighborhoods. They have largely been targeting kids, and due to their light deployment they have a fairly good pool of talent to spread around. But, from the people I know at these spaces, they have not been successful in engaging the general public in the way that spaces like NYC Resistor have. You need more than a shop full of hundred thousand dollar equipment to get people to want to be involved in STEM initiatives. And that goes back to what I was saying before about getting parents and families involved in this stuff.
At the end of the day, you need to reach out to the entire family unit, and get them starting with the parents, to stop spending their free time in front of the television, or sleeping off their exhausting day at work. You want them to spend their precious few days off taking their kids out and instead of seeing the ball game, or going to the movies… you want them to build a bike with their kid, or make pumpkin flavored sodas, or just fire off some model rockets in a park where it’s safe to do so. This is where events like maker faire and museums like liberty science center act as your gateway. Showing up in their neighbor hood and being a big entertaining ball of awesome gets them to come out, and that gives us the opportunity to show them what this stuff can do for their kids, and how much fun it can be for the parents to engage in a hobby with their kids. Showing kids and parents some simple and cheap model planes or cars is the first step to getting your kid to join a FIRST robotics team. People can’t make their kids want to do this stuff, and without being there to help them out when they fail, which they will, they’ll have a hard time learning to love everything ( including the failure ) that comes with STEM.
So now, how can a library hackerspace convergence draw families in, and provide them the ability to really enjoy STEM. And I think at the end of the day, that’s the question we really need to ask ourselves. What’s really amazing about that question is that there’s so many answers and opportunities. I know of more than a couple of people looking into making this a line of business, and multiple lines of business willing to engage in bootstrapping this community agenda with their own offerings ( sometimes this is great ). From where I am looking right now, standing on the hackerspaces side of this canyon, I see some pretty amazing paths available to us, and they tend to look like they head to some awesome locations for our nation as a whole.
I’m not sure the hackerspace is the right answer ultimately, but I’m also not sure that I’d trust a “public service” with this pursuit either. Everything has it’s down sides. But if people could take all the good parts of a church, or mosque, or temple… and remove the religion and replace it with STEM. You could build a house not of religious engagement, but STEM engagement. And if there really was an organization that was able to approach that singular set of SOLELY humanitarian goals in educating people without being antagonistic to anything else, an open and powerful international organization who simply wanted to make people “better” in any way it could. We’d have something truly amazing. I started Make:NYC, with my friends, because I believe in this. I joined NYC Resistor because I wanted to be there cheering my peers on as they did great things for the people of NYC and each other. I am not alone in hoping that some day there will exist an international community of people who are devout in their desire to help in any way possible to simply engage people when they ask for help learning to make their own lives better. We’re starting down that path today. From the UNICEF engineering labs and their outreach, to maker faire Africa there are people of all schools of STEM forging their own paths in this direction. If we could somehow share the load as we go, without chaining anyone to any single path we could do much more amazing things.
So when I ponder this convergence I see not only the practical problems, but a real potential hope for mankind to pursue one of it’s most admirable qualities. We’ve pursued faith, loyalty, and freedom together. Now let us pursue STEM. It doesn’t take a very large commitment, and we have EVERYTHING to gain from it.
Sigh, I suppose Obama’s speeches are filled with hope. But when the hope fades, will we still be there toiling in the depths of the details? If we are, then when the sun rises on the beautiful edifice to mankind’s greatest STEM achievements covered in the battle scars of failure and desperation… we will smile of joy that only an engineer, or a scientist, or mathematician knows. As the great military genius Hannibal once put it so succinctly after a hard won battle, “I love it when a plan comes together”. I look forward to that day, it is my greatest hope. And that’s what the STEM initiative means to a lot of people today.