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Oct. 03, 2011

DIY Sci

by Ira Flatow

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I just came home from the Flagstaff, AZ, Festival of Science, a ten-day citywide extravaganza, and from the second annual World Maker Faire 2011, at the New York Hall of Science. And boy, is there excitement in the air.
 
The National Science Foundation has said it is supporting more science festivals because “we think something very significant is happening here.” What they mean is, if you want to show kids of any age how exciting science and technology can be, take them to a science festival or a Maker Faire. What’s different about festivals is that kids actually get to do science – and science and technology becomes something that kids continue to do the day after the festival…and the day and week after that, too.
 
Everyone concerned with STEM education worries about how to make elementary school students’ natural enthusiasm for science and invention last through big bad middle school — when kids start to turn off to science – and then through the rigors of high school, college, and graduate school, into adulthood. If students don’t take up STEM careers, we want them to become citizens who remain lifelong learners, who appreciate how much science and technology affect them. We want them to become citizen scientists, to do it themselves.
 
For example, World Maker Faire is kind of Burning-Man-meets-science fair, where you can find robotics, crafts, sustainability and mind-bending demos from the likes of ArcAttack!, a band that makes music with Tesla coils, the Las Vegas-style fountain spouting from Mentos and Coke Zero, the science fashion show, or the booth where I learned how to grow vegetables vertically, in a window. I even learned how a lock works by picking one.
 
Maker Faire is a state fair for “grassroots American innovation” and the Do It Yourself (DIY) movement. That movement embraces artists of all kinds, scientists, engineers and technology enthusiasts, craftspeople, those who make their own things because they want to live greener, and people who simply like to tinker. Maker Faire is a project of MAKE Magazine, a quarterly that is full of do-it-yourself projects, some just for fun, some very practical, and some just plain incredible. They’re all projects that kids can do, or you can do with them. MAKE’s first issue showed you how to take pictures with a camera suspended from a kite — and how to build an inexpensive rig to hold your camera. The current issue is all about robots, and MAKE has special materials for teachers, too.
 
New York’s World Maker Faire celebrates science: invention, creativity, performances, and a general celebration of Making It Yourself – whatever It may be. (You can find more information and videos of past Maker Faires here.)
There’s even a DIY movement afoot in science: What if kids (and their parents) could hack the code of life themselves? At this year’s Faire, one of the makers was GenSpace, a group that helps non-scientists do biotech. GenSpace has an open space in Brooklyn where you can extract your own DNA from your cells, and learn how to use biotech’s tools. There are spaces like GenSpace in other cities, too.
 
Remember when science was fun? It still is.
 
When you wonder where all the youthful creativity is; where good old “Yankee ingenuity” has gone, it’s still here. But not in formal education. Anyone who is looking to find the next generation of engineers, technologists and free-thinkers need only go to one of these Faires or visit the thousands of Hacker Spaces springing up across the country. It will leave you breathless…and hopeful.
About Ira Flatow

Ira is the host and executive producer of Science Friday.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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