Making Makers in Los Angeles

LA Makers 20121212

Tara Tiger Brown, at left, is a leader of the LA Makerspace. Quin (age 12), at right, is a young Maker. (Image credit: family photo)

Soon after taking office in 2009, in a speech at the National Academy of Sciences, President Obama called on the science, engineering, and technology communities to “encourage young people to create and build and invent – to be makers of things not just consumers of things.” Since then, across the country, communities, organizations, private companies, and grassroots leaders have been stepping up to respond to the President’s call to action.

I recently sat down for a conversation with one of those leaders: Tara Tiger Brown, Technical Director of UC Irvine’s Digital Media Learning Research Hub and Director’s Board member for the Los Angeles Makerspace—a non-profit community of practice for inventors, builders, and creators (“makers”) to work and learn in a range of areas, including software, hardware, electronics, robotics, art, filmmaking, bio-tech, eco-tech, wearable-tech, and more.  Though some such “makerspaces” are for adults only, the LA Makerspace is specifically designed to be family friendly and welcomes makers of all ages.

Here’s what Tara shared about her experience bringing kids and families into the growing community of American makers:

What inspired you to help lead this effort?

A few different things inspired me. My biggest inspiration is my own two-and-a-half year old. I work with researchers that are focused on the “connected learning” movement and it became very apparent to me that Ripley is going to need more than what is taught to him in school for him to follow his interests. I also noticed that some of the emerging communities for makers in LA might not be the best environment for younger kids, from a safety standpoint.  Not too long after that, I co-founded a women's tech club and I thought that perhaps I could combine my own club activities with the need for a more kid-friendly environment.

What kinds of projects demonstrate the promise (and fun) of Making for parents and kids?

All of them! We have a policy where if you are under 13, you must be accompanied by an adult to all of our classes. At first we thought it was a risky move because we weren't sure if parents were hoping to just drop their kids off at classes, but it was the opposite. The parents were just as excited to be at the classes as the kids. Some families have come to almost every single one of our events and always learn something new and mentor the newcomers. 

The do-it-yourself (DIY) Halloween Lantern class was a huge hit, complete with kids wielding soldering irons. Our Chemistry of Food event added a little element of danger because we used liquid nitrogen to make the ice cream, and it turned out to be a great learning opportunity for the parents and kids to think beyond their usual cooking regime at home. One of my favorite moments was at our first “Scratch” programming class; the parents that didn't know how to program hung back a bit, then slowly inched forward towards the laptop and eventually got right in there creating the animation with their child.

How can we encourage more women and girls to participate in Making?

I think it's already happening…there are women-only programming clubs popping up all over the world. A couple of weeks ago I hosted a virtual meeting with some of the women who founded female programming groups and learned that they are growing exponentially. The demand is there and there isn't any sign of it slowing down.

The idea of role models is really key here—and there are some fantastic role models out there already. Girls need to see that this is something they can do for the long haul. I'd like to see more female role models in all aspects of STEM get the credit they deserve. Organizations like Steminist and the Anita Borg Institute do a great job of highlighting women in science, technology, engineering and math, but we need more of that.

What more could government agencies, companies, and foundations do to support young Makers?

More risk taking in grant giving and a willingness to take chances on extremely experimental ideas is absolutely necessary. This speaks to the heart of the maker culture. But Makerspaces also need equipment, tools, materials and instructors to be successful. A program that pairs a space with volunteers at organizations and in-kind donations would be extremely helpful. Like grant writing, we spend a lot of time reaching out to companies asking for support. If we could streamline that process so that the matching happens with a click of a button, it would allow us to focus on executing our programs.

If you could wave a magic wand and create a new or improved hardware or software tool for Making, what would it be and what would it do?

I'd like to see more hardware and software programs that make it easy for people to just start doing things. There are lots of programs and apps out there, for example, that have made it incredibly easy for anyone to edit their own movies and publish them to the web. 3-D printers that can print electronic circuits and metal structures can also spur lots of creativity, as can “graphical user interfaces” that allow kids to program electronics. I'd like more and more of that kind of usability included when developing maker tools, especially for younger kids.

What advice would you have for someone who is interested in creating a vibrant Makerspace in their own community?

Tell everyone what you want to do and then do it. I promise you that people will show up. We use online collaboration tools like meetup.com and eventbrite.com to invite the community to our events and recruit volunteers. We also reach out to museums, libraries, colleges and other community-based learning environments to collaborate on projects and share resources and skilled instructors.

And, encourage everyone to teach something. The best way to retain what you learn is to teach it to others. Simply explaining what you made to someone else or showing them how to use a particular tool is one of the best ways to build up community and life-long friendships. We have highly skilled parents who come to our events who have never taught before, not even to their kids—because they just don't consider themselves as teachers. Once they are in the space, though, teaching just happens naturally and they can use their knowledge and abilities to help others. All of a sudden someone who didn't consider themselves in this capacity before has that "a-ha!" moment.

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Policy at OSTP

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