Maker Faire 2012: Nerdy Derby as Inspirational Pedagogy

This past weekend I had the privilege of going to the World Maker Faire with my fellow colleagues from the Creativity Labs at Indiana University. Our lab is engaged in a number of efforts to envision intersections of the DIY and Maker sub-cultures and contemporary education, thinking about how these communities that have a strong focus on hands-on problem-solving, collaboration, arts and STEM might help us move teaching and learning forward.

The New York faire, held at the Hall of Science in Queens (a place I have fond memories of visiting as a kid), is in many ways chaotic and carnival-esque – dozens of tents dot the landscape of the museum grounds displaying everything from handmade robots that play basketball to PVC pipes configured to shoot marshmallows across a room. All manner of high and low tech can be found – 3D printers, woodcutting machines, sewing and embroidery stations, even a super-sized thumb-wresting apparatus. You can see some of the fun through the photos I took and at the Maker Faire site.


Nerdy Derby
Rather than talking about the whole fair from an educational standpoint, I want to focus one great example of how we can be inspired by the Maker movement: the Nerdy Derby. The Nerdy Derby is a reboot on the classic Pinewood Derby where people (usually kids) create handmade model cars and race them on wooden tracks. You can check out a neat little video of the derby below to get a sense of the experience.

The Nerdy Derby had a lot of features that I think we should include when we create well designed learning experiences for kids. I want to briefly take you through what I saw happening there from the perspective of good education and good learning.

  1. The Derby railsA Clear Context of Application - kids working on their derby cars in one part of the tent knew exactly why they were working on what they were working on. They could see, right across the tent, the real world space of the three competition rails where their work would be applied and judged. The problem they were trying to solve was made transparent by the design of the space.
  2. Multi-generational Creation and Collaboration – adults and kids worked together to tinker, hack and refine their derby car models. When kids got stuck, parents and folks running the derby were there to help out and assist in problem solving.
  3. Multiple Avenues to Success, but Clear Standards derby cars took many forms, and no one was there telling kids that their cars needed to look a certain way. Lots of different types of material resources were provided in the environment that let kids try out different approaches. At the same time, the kids couldn’t create just anything – the problem space they were in meant that there were standards for what would work and what wouldn’t. The design of the track, for example, made two wheeled vehicles impossible to race.
  4. Derby test railSafe Contexts for Testing – before kids moved their derby cars to the big leagues on the main rail, they were able to try out their models on test rails to see how they worked. Nobody expected that their cars would be perfect in this environment, and kids weren’t afraid to fail – after all, that’s what the test rails were for.
  5. Performance as Feedback - when derby cars were finally completed and they were ready to race one another, the context of application itself provided feedback – kids got to see how well their cars performed in relation to others. I even heard people making some hypothesis after a race about why a car performed in a certain way, information that could be used to change car designs.
  6. Opportunities for Iteration - after their cars were raced and they got that performance feedback, they could go back to the workspace to iterate on their designs, tweak them based on what they saw, and try them out again.

For me, one of the things that made this such a powerful learning environment is that all the feedback loops were tight – kids were able to see what they were going for, what counted as good participation, what resources were available. They were able to create based on this consequential information, test and refine, put their creations out there, learn from the experience and iterate all within this self-contained experience. Compare that to our current models of education – kids rarely understand why they’re working on something, their work so often has no actual application to even a fictional problem space, stakes are incredibly high and so testing and iteration are discouraged, and feedback is more often about telling kids how they did after long times scales (think tests) rather than being ongoing and on-demand while they’re involved in their work (like the test-rails in the derby).

This is only a small example of how the Make movement might inspire better pedagogy, but its clear contrast to what current classrooms look like is a testament to just how much room we have for improvement.

4 Responses to “Maker Faire 2012: Nerdy Derby as Inspirational Pedagogy”


  1. 1 cognitioneducation October 3, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    A “mini” maker faire was recently held in Portland OR too, and I attended with my family and our 5-year-old left buzzing, virtual sparks shooting out of her eyes. She got to build a robot-pin with flashing eyes, spin wool, operate robotic cars, paint clay tiles, and so much more. While there I jumped at the chance to briefly chat with the editor of Make Magazine after his presentation on education reform and the role these maker-faire-endeavors may play. What I discussed with him and want to share here too is that models for this exist already in the Montessori curriculum. In particular the beauty of her primary curriculum reflects much of what you note above, including the built-in correction for error. What’s been on my mind lately, along these lines, is what Montessori would “make” of the current technological advances that surround us, and how she would integrate that into an upper-elementary curriculum (there’s reason to believe that she’d likly leave the virtual out of the primary classroom though). Or, said another way, how can folks working on curricular reform take these “alternative” ideas and blend them for the modern era, in ways that make them mainstream? What would a “maker-faire-meets-montessori” school look like? I think it would be fabulous, amazing, and something all our children deserve to attend and all our dedicated and creative teachers deserve to get to work at.


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