Step away from the ‘smartphone’ and try using your hands and mind to make something – #bookreview

The Make: Series of How-to Books

A British scientist made headlines a few years ago when she warned that young people no longer make or repair things. It has become all too easy for them now, she cautioned, to simply throw away old or broken devices and buy new ones.

A key point was that many things currently being discarded could be fixed or refurbished and put to new uses. It would just take a little effort, a little learning, and some imagination.

I ran into some of that “no longer make or repair things” attitude a few years ago while working temporarily as a substitute teacher. If you have ever been a substitute in a public high school or middle school, you likely know that students often view “subs” as an excuse to pay absolutely no attention to anything he or she says.

When I could get no interest or response to the day’s assigned work in a science class, I tried introducing a challenge: Imagine you have become stranded on a desert island in the Pacific Ocean, and you have just a few items with which to try to survive and attract the attention of a passing ship. The items ranged from coconuts and palm fronds to a pocket mirror, a small magnifying glass, a couple of cups, some string and a safety-pin.

I figured the kids might come up with some clever ways to (1) crack open the coconuts for food and liquid, (2) start a fire using a magnifying glass and dried palm fronds, (3) use the string and safety-pin to catch a fish to cook over the fire, (4) use the cups to boil seawater and capture the steam to make a little drinking water, and (5) prepare a separate pile of palm fronds to burn as a rescue signal to a passing ship.

Ha. At first, the students seemed intrigued and engaged by the challenge. They immediately started calling out survival “strategies.” Unfortunately, most of their ideas started with two concepts: “First, I’d go to the mall and buy…” or “First, I’d go online and buy….”

The reality of being stranded in isolation without immediate communication did not even register with them at first. When they did begin to try to imagine surviving without their smartphones, they quickly ran out of ideas and became sullen or antagonistic toward me.

This experience also became the straw that finally broke the back of my desire to continue as a substitute teacher. I had grown up at a time when making, tinkering, building, and repairing all were noble pursuits for a teenager interested in science, electronics, space and engineering. If I wanted a shortwave radio or a new type of model airplane or a small rocket I could launch in my back yard, I built them from scratch or combined pieces of previous projects. None of this experience registered with my students. And my next attempts to stir up enthusiasm for making and repairing things similarly fell flat.

Make It So?

Do you worry that your kids are growing up not knowing how to make things or fix things? Do you fret that you no longer remember how to make things or fix things?

Working with your hands, eyes and brain – and not just mindlessly swiping an index finger across a tiny screen – can be both physically and mentally rewarding.

Of course, the web is alive with “how to” information for making or repairing almost anything. And I make occasional pilgrimages to public libraries and bookstores to find reference materials and instruction books related to specific projects.

I am an unabashed fan of the “Make:” series of books from Maker Media. I don’t build all of their projects, but I do try out some of them. And I enjoy reading about zany, yet sometimes practical, stuff such as (1) how to use a magnet to tell if money is counterfeit, (2) how to create artwork that actually does something, using just a handful of electronic components, (3) how to generate electric power with several lemons connected in series, or (4) how to make some really good paper airplanes and paper helicopters. The “Make:” books consistently feature clear, well-organized instructional text, illustrations and photographs of how things go together.

Books such as Tinkering: Kids Learn by Making Stuff (2nd edition), Easy 1+2+3 Projects, and Planes, Gliders, and Paper Rockets can appeal to parents and children who are in elementary school or older. For older kids and their parents, or for would-be engineers, Make: books such as Bluetooth, Getting Started with Intel Edison, and 3D Printing Projects can be helpful and enlightening how-to guides. Books on numerous other topics also are offered.

Do your kids (and/or you) seem unhealthily addicted now to clutching and staring at smartphones all day? You may want to try putting the devices aside and seeing what you can create with your hands, your mind, some household materials and a few readily available gadgets that don’t require pricey data plans and contracts.

You can do it! Power off now! (Okay, for just a few minutes at first if you insist and if you have a really bad case of smartphone withdrawal.)

— Si Dunn

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