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Raising Every Project's Ceiling

Raising Every Project's Ceiling

Written by David Perlis
November 19, 2015

(Originally posted at the Creativity Lab.)

I think we all like making for different reasons. For some of us it might be driving a curriculum, and for others it might be just the thrill of getting messy, or exploring new technologies. Looking back on my year with the Creativity Lab, I think I’ve probably gone through cycles of areas that really excited me. I’m definitely a cardboard kinda guy. Then the laser cutter took hold of me. Paper circuits, I like those. But no matter the material or the technology, I love projects that inspire me to raise the ceiling.

It’s possible that every project has a high ceiling. I won’t say this is definitively true (as soon as I do, I’ll get a comment with a project idea proving me wrong), but it seems to me to be the case. When I say high ceiling, I’m thinking about the possibility to add complexity and improve upon the work. So, is there any project we do that we can’t do better? That we can’t make more complex, or that we can’t push ourselves to learn more about? I doubt it.

Let’s start really simple: scribble machines. I actually wrote a post about this several months ago, so forgive me for the repetition, but I think it’s important, and I’ll try to expand a bit. Scribble machines are quick, cheap, and easy. Kindergarteners make them in an hour, and they’re great for exciting children with the absolute basics of circuitry, and reaffirming their exploration with quick success. Great. How can we go further? Well, scribble machines are flimsy. So let’s ask ourselves: how can we make them sturdier? What if we 3d print a scribble machine that we can fit markers into, so it’s much sturdier? High ceiling—adding design and technology.

But now we’ve designed a concrete scribble machine—one that holds, say, four markers in specific spots. And it’s too tedious to keep designing an entire scribble machine every single time. So we ask: how can we be more flexible with our designs? What if we create interchangeable parts, so the base remains the same, but we have a system for switching out where the markers go? High ceiling—further considering design.

Of course, 3d printers are slow, and plastic isn’t so good for the environment. So what do we do about that? Maybe we can cut pieces on the laser cutter—out of wood, or even cardboard, because it’s so cheap—and incorporate that into our design as much as possible. That will also let us let us disassemble our machines, for easy storage. High ceiling—further considering design, and considering environmental and cost issues.

So we’ve got these great scribble machines, but scribbling gets old—it would be way more fun if they could draw specific shapes, (high ceiling—incorporate Arduinos and programming), or if they had LEDs attached, just for aesthetics (high ceiling—integrate more circuitry), and we want to share our designs with each other, so it’s best that we document our work in a shareable fashion (high ceiling—organizational and documentation strategies)…and so on. Mind you, we haven’t necessarily done all of these specific examples with our students’ projects at the Creativity Lab, but my point is that pushing the boundaries of any project is where it counts—in my opinion, anyway.

I know that in the example above I’m talking about integrating tools and technologies that maybe not all schools have, but I think pushing boundaries works even without them. If you’re making paper circuits, ask how you can incorporate extra LEDs; ask how you can add switches; ask what other projects you might be able to incorporate your understanding of circuitry into. How can you do it faster? How can you do it cheaper? How can you make it look nicer? What strategies are you learning, and how can you share these strategies with others? How can you apply what you learn with circuitry into other areas of thought? (I recall a unit in my high school logic class in which we converted logical expressions into circuit diagrams, and vice versa.) I think this is what gives students ownership of their learning, and what makes making so valuable.

Those are a just a few examples I came up with while writing this post, but I’d like to invite everyone reading to comment with their own ideas for raising the ceiling on projects. How can we push boundaries, and share what we’ve learned with each other?