This year, I am teaching ‘maker art’ to lower and middle school children, to help them create interactive art with electronics and storytelling.
In our after-school classes, we build miniature worlds together: a city of the future, a haunted house or a halloween wonderbox. We show students how to bring them to life with animated characters, light them up, make them move, play sounds and tell their stories.
This hands-on, project-based activity invites children to learn by doing, in a playful way that engages all their senses and puts them in charge of their own learning.
Here’s an overview of our first classes in 2016, for elementary and middle school students ages 6 to 14, in four different Bay Area schools and libraries (see list below).
I gave a talk about our Maker Art classes at the ReMake Education Summit in Sonoma on August 4. Here are the slides of that 20-min. presentation, which also included these photos of our maker art classes — and this short video on how to create a Halloween Wonderbox.
Here’s what we learned so far from these maker art classes:
- Maker art is deeply engaging
- Art + tech + stories appeal to more learners
- They identify with their characters
- Creative freedom gives them license to play
- Student-driven projects build their confidence
- Collaborations are fun and productive
- Family activities level the age gap
- Wonderboxes help frame our imagination
I plan to write a more in-depth blog post about these findings in coming weeks. For now, here are more lessons learned, written by our team during our first experiments in spring 2016.
If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, we invite you to come visit us at Tam Makers, our new makerspace in Mill Valley. We offer a range of maker classes, open shops and free meetups. Making art together is fun and educational!
In our workshops, we give each student a small cardboard ‘wonderbox’ and ask them to create an interesting scene in that box, on a given theme (e.g. Chinese New Year, see below). They learn to design and build their artworks, then bring them to life with lights, motion and sound. At the end of the course, we assemble all their boxes together and ask students to tell their stories for a short video ‘show and tell’. We provide all the materials for this course and students can take their wonderbox home at the end.
This educational program invites children to develop a wide range of new skills, across multiple disciplines: from creative expression to science and engineering. They seem really engaged by the freedom to create their own interactive art, which gives them more control over their learning experience. And working collaboratively, they get to experiment together and help each other create something greater than any of them could do on their own.
Learn more about our Wonderbox workshops here. For more info, read about our first Wonderbox workshop at the Mill Valley Library, then view this video and photo album, as well as the workshop instructions. This program was developed by artists and educators at Pataphysical Studios, creators of the ‘Pataphysical Slot Machine.
Celebrate the Chinese New Year by making an art wonderbox with a paper lantern and animated character.
In this course, students get to pick an animal from the Chinese Zodiac (e.g.: dragon, horse, tiger, snake). We give them a laser-cut wood figure as a framework to build on, as well as lots of art & crafts supplies and electronic parts. Kids bring them to life by making their characters move, light up, play sound — then coloring and decorating them with markers, fabric, feathers and jewels (see photo).
Children learn to:
• Light up a paper lantern
• Make a button and circuit
• Make their animal move
• Decorate their box
• Play sounds
• Tell their story
To learn more, watch this prototype video of the Chinese New Year Wonderbox — as well as this video of our first experiments with making animals move. You’ll also find more details in our course overview.
Our lower school students seem to love this fun and educational activity. They enjoy lighting up their lanterns and making their art move — and they gain a deeper understanding of electrical and mechanical engineering, as well as creative design and innovation.
For example, to make their animals move, they had to explore different ways to animate their creatures: using glue sticks to make them vibrate, or hand-made paper propellers to push them forward and make other objects move (see photo). In the process, we’re all learning to create simple ‘poetic robots’ — with just a few affordable parts that anyone can assemble together.
The Chinese New Year is our theme for January and February 2016. Our next theme from March to July 2016 will be to build a City of the Future, as outlined below.
Create a city of the future with arts and electronics!
In this course, children will imagine what the world will be like in 100 years, then build a futuristic model together.
This spring, I am teaming up with teacher and builder Geo Monley to teach this cool after-school maker course for middle-school students, held in his fabulous wood shop at Tam High. We will invite kids to invent the future by building it with art and electronics, making models of what life might be like in the next century. Starting March 30, we will meet every Wednesday from 3:30pm to 5:30pm at Tam High School in Mill Valley.
Students will first make a futuristic home with a cardboard ‘wonderbox’ and a small character, featuring a new invention that might change our lives in the 22nd century. They will then bring them to life by making their characters move, lights blink and sounds play. Next, they will work with other students to assemble their boxes into a small city of the future. At the end of the course, we will make a short video of their creations — which they get to keep.
Here is a first example of what our city of the future could look like.
Our city of the future will include a row of ‘wonderbox’ homes in the foreground, and a city landscape in the background. The model will be about 6 feet wide, 3 feet deep and up to 4 feet high, and be showcased on a ‘maker art cart’.
Learn more about this City of the Future course here.
We taught 5 different ‘maker art’ courses and workshops in 2016, in Marin and the Bay Area:
(Update: courses grayed out below are either full or have already occurred)
• Maker Art Class
Lycée Français in Sausalito – Jan. to June 2016
Weekly after-school class for children ages 6-10
Themes: Chinese New Year | City of the Future
Thursday afternoons for 90 minutes
For enrolled students of the Lycée only
• Wonderbox Workshop
Lycée Français in San Francisco – Feb. 15, 17 and 19
Special workshop for children ages 7-10
Theme: Chinese New Year
Three classes of 90 minutes each during ski week
For enrolled students of the Lycée only
• Create Your Own Wonderbox
Mill Valley Public Library – Feb 16 and 18
FREE workshop for children ages 8-10
Theme: Chinese New Year
Two classes of 2 hours each during ski week.
No experience required. Grades 3-5 only. Parents welcome.
• City of the Future
Tamalpais High School – March to May 2016
Weekly after-school class for children ages 10-14
Wednesdays at 3:30pm, for 2 hours
No experience required. Parents welcome.
With Geo Monley at Tam Makers
• Create a Haunted House
Lycée Français in Sausalito – Sep. to Dec. 2016
After-school class for ages 7-10 (grades 4-5)
Thursdays at 3:30pm, for 90 minutes
For enrolled students of the Lycée only
Overall, this ‘maker art’ program seems like a great way to teach art and technology to school children, in a playful way that makes their learning experience more fun. So far, the students are responding well to this hands-on, project-based activity: they seem engaged by the freedom to create their own interactive art, which is music to my ears. And their parents also seem to really appreciate this fun and educational program.
To experiment with this vision, I am leading these pilot courses in 2016, with the help of my maker art community. We will determine next steps for this program after evaluating our first pilot results. Possible outcomes might include more Wonderbox workshops, a public maker space in Marin, a full line of Wonderbox kits, an online Wonderbox site for videos — and/or training programs for educators. We also hope that this program can help grow an ‘art maker movement’ over time.
For now, I am really enjoying this new chapter of my life as a maker art teacher. Designing and leading this program has been very fulfilling so far — even if it can be exhausting at times. In a sense, this is a culmination of all the work I’ve done in my career, from education to entertainment and technology, bringing together the physical and digital worlds to support better collaborations and deeper understandings.
Every decade or so, I try to re-invent myself and take a new challenge. My last decade was focused on facts and how to tell them apart from fiction — first with our NewsTrust experiment, then on a much wider scale with Wikipedia. It’s very likely that my next decade will be all about art, learning and community.
I would like to thank my art and learning communities and the great team of friends who are working with me to offer these classes.
First off, I’m very grateful to the schools and libraries who are hosting this program: Andrew Sobol, Marjolaine Debord and Wladymir Wladymir Paiva and everyone at the Lycée Français; Anji Brenner and Karen Clarke at the Mill Valley Library — and Chris McCune and Betty Sue Johnson at the Tam High Union District. This classes would not be possible without their wonderful support of our cause.
I’m particularly grateful to my partners in the classroom: Cynthia Gilbert at the Lycée Français; and Geo Monley at Tam High School. Heartfelt thanks as well to my wife Phyllis for preparing the art supplies for this class, and to my art friends from Pataphysical Studios: Howard Rheingold, Jean Bolte and her daughter Natalina for their advice, creative prototypes, art supplies and help assembling the kits. Kudos as well to Tara Brown at Kithub for supplying the electronic parts.
Last but not least, it’s a real pleasure to meet parents of our students, and getting them engaged in the process. And it’s a real pleasure to be teaching their children, whose curiosity, creativity and enthusiasm are an inspiration to me.
I’m so happy to see a little community grow around our first maker art courses: I hope that over time we can turn this initiative into a vibrant community learning network.