Saturday, January 30, 2016

Creative Learning Space: Bloominglabs

Bloominglabs is an adult maker/hackerspace here in Bloomington, located in a warehouse. While it has a paid membership structure, once a week on Wednesday evenings they open it up to anyone. I visited on two Wednesdays (once from 9pm-10:45pm, and the following week from 7:40-10:40pm).

The diversity of projects is incredible. The projects involve electronics, computers, 3D printing, laser cutting, woodworking, metalworking, and even sewing and painting. They even have welding and are setting things up to be able to support auto repair. It seems most projects come from individual interests or needs—for instance, one man painted with acrylic paints on laser-cut acrylic just because he wanted to test how it would turn out, while another had a busted carburetor on his motorcycle and needed to fix it. The most impressive project I saw was an electricity-generating bicycle that lights up a giant Menorah, which as far as I can tell was made only because its maker wanted to do it. It seems it’s pretty common for non-members to bring items in for repair on Wednesday nights too; I brought in a voice-changing mask I bought for a costume, but the voice-changing part wasn’t working and needed to be fixed (it just needed to be re-soldered). Another man brought a sewing machine that he couldn’t get to work, which one of the few female members of Bloominglabs helped him out with. Sometimes members work on improvements to the space. For instance, I saw someone using the wood tools to make a shelf on which he mounted a TV above the door in the big room, to keep a watch on the laser cutter, which has a camera on it.

The bicycle-powered Menorah! I couldn't get a better angle because it was tucked between a shelf and the wall.
The community ranges in age from teenagers to upper middle age, and they all seemed very welcoming and friendly. Most of them are men, though I know one female member well and saw or heard of a few more during my visits. Some people seemed content to just hang out and watch videos together. Others helped each other out with projects, like an expert welder helping weld a broken piece of the motorcycle carburetor, or the woman helping with the sewing machine. Others worked on projects alone, such as a couple people modeling objects for the laser cutter or 3D printer on their computers. Visitors are always welcome on Wednesday nights, and there’s always someone willing to show them around. When I walked in the first week and explained my problem, people seemed to know who would be most helpful to me, and he immediately wrapped up what he was doing and turned to my project. There seems to be opportunity both for watching an expert help you with your project, as I did, and learning from them how to do it yourself. They also seemed very willing to help each other and work on the same project together depending on their strengths. For instance, one young man was taking apart his broken PlayStation 3. He occasionally called over a friend to help him with the difficult bits. Once he was done disassembling it, he gave it to an expert in electronics to solder the broken parts. They seemed to divide labor based on skillset rather than on authority. There were no clear leadership structures or hierarchies that I could see.

Besides values of general friendliness, there also seems to be a DIY spirit, a quirkiness, and an openness to ideas and guests, no matter who they are or how crazy the ideas. There’s also an etiquette to cleaning up your tools (there were signs all over saying, “Don’t maroon tools on uncharted workspaces!”). Each tool has its proper place, or at least an area where others like it are kept (like a wall on which you hang screwdrivers and other hand tools).

These posters showcase some of Bloominglabs' values: a repair-it-yourself spirit and an expectation to clean up after yourself.
The space is large, loud, and eclectic. There’s a front room with large tables pushed together in the middle, where people gather with their computers and smaller-scale projects. The large table supports social interaction, to help build a more cohesive community and a spirit of helping each other. There are wires everywhere here, as well as shelves, old arcade game consoles, screens, and a 3D printer. A smaller room to the side of this one houses the laser cutter with its ventilation system. In the large, main space, there are huge power tools for working with wood, metal, vehicles, etc., as well as more ordinary hand tools. I spotted one sewing machine (besides the one the man brought in), but no fabric or thread, except for a lone spool of conductive thread that no one was using. There are also quirky objects spread around the space, like a USB hub made out of an old lamp, or giant circuit boards that decorate the walls like framed art. While members claim that the space is more organized than it used to be, thanks to the untiring efforts of a man who spends almost every day in the space, it is still crowded and cluttered with stuff. The function the clutter serves within the culture of this space is to provide constant access and inspiration, even if not for the exact thing you’re looking for, at least to the look and spirit of the kind of thing you could be making. There are some kinds of projects that are less likely to occur to you in the space's current material configuration, such as more crafty low-tech projects, but there are even exceptions to that, with the painted laser-cut acrylic, a small table loom built from scratch, and a project I heard about involving light-up fairy wings. So the creative process is well supported, and even if the materials may not seem to call out for certain types of projects, the people in the space are receptive to any idea and will help your dreams become reality.
Part of Bloominglabs' large main space


Sunday, January 24, 2016


When I was quite young, perhaps 3 or so, my parents bought me a large Playskool dollhouse for Christmas. Molded out of white and pastel plastics, it came with several rooms, furniture, and a doll family consisting of a mother, father, baby, and teenage girl who I guess was supposed to be the babysitter. Over the years I accumulated more dolls and pieces to add to the dollhouse. It became one of the main foci of my play for the next several years.
My dollhouse looked something like this, though this one has more pieces than mine did.
 Playing with the dollhouse probably helped structure my ideas about gender roles and what families are like, but that's not what I remember most fondly about it. Instead, I remember how much fun I had making the dolls characters in my stories. Even if most of the stories I played out with them were about mundane everyday life, I enjoyed having characters in my control and putting them in various situations.

My story-making wasn't limited to the dollhouse; it's just the oldest and longest-running example I remember. I did the same with baby dolls, Barbies, stuffed animals, McDonald's toys, imaginary friends, and nearly anything I could personify. While media helped me figure out what a story was, these toys helped me to create my own. I really think pretend play with these toys helped me to structure my thinking in a narrative manner, something that persists to this day. I also still greatly value good stories and imagination. But more importantly, by taking on the perspectives of these toys-as-characters, I practiced empathy, perspective-taking, and emotional skills. Because I was the oldest child, it was several years before my sister was old enough to play with me. So pretending with my toys and imaginary friends was how I started to practice getting along with people.

I believe these experiences were crucial for my development, both as a storyteller, and as a person who tries to get along with others and make a difference in their lives. Narrative is still my favorite form of literature both to consume and write, and concrete examples described as narratives are best at helping me to understand complex phenomena. And I still think of my life primarily in terms of the way I relate to other people. So the dollhouse and other toys like it helped me structure my thinking both cognitively and emotionally.

Here I am, c. 1994, with the Playskool dollhouse beside me.

Monday, January 18, 2016

How I Think Learning Works: A Diagram and a Story

Imagine a girl, a teenager, perhaps. She wants to learn a new skill: sewing. In order to truly learn, there must be a relatively permanent change within her as an individual. In this case, because the content to be learned does not involve mere declarative facts, the change must be both mental/internal and physical/external.

The girl wants to learn how to sew because she wants to make a cosplay costume. This illustrates that the learning process must have a fairly deliberate starting point: activation. This can be as simple as getting a classroom's attention so they will remember the material, but it works better when it comes from a learner's own intrinsic motivation, goals, and interests. The girl is motivated because she and her friends love a certain TV show, and they want to express their love by dressing up as characters from that show. She has to sew the costume, because it is strange enough that assembling it from already-existing pieces of clothing would be impossible. Besides, all her friends are sewing their costumes too, so she wants to learn along with them.

The girl finds an online tutorial for how to make the costume. She buys the fabric recommended in the tutorial, and discovers that there are hints about how to work with the fabric embedded within the material itself. For instance, one side of the fabric looks better than the other, implying that only one side of the fabric should face outward. Fabric is flat, but it can also (and must also) curve. Even examining the way her purchased clothing is put together shows her some things about how sewing works, like how seams are almost always on the inside of the garment. Knowledge, then, does not always exist only in the individual mind. It can be distributed within the minds of others, within resources, and within the nature of materials themselves. Knowing how to find this distributed knowledge is just as important as—and can be done instead of—memorizing it.

Now comes the hard part: actually doing the sewing. The permanent change indicating that learning has occurred may not happen until the learner actually practices/otherwise externally demonstrates the knowledge/skill. The girl follows online how-to-sew tutorials in order to practice with the sewing machine inherited from her grandmother, and not until she does so does she understand, for instance, why most sewing is done with the fabric inside-out.

Finally, the girl finishes her costume, and has a blast wearing it at a fan convention with her friends. This has been possible not just because of her internal state, but also because of external supports from the sociocultural context. The TV show she likes provided inspiration for the costume. The convention provided a context in which to wear it. Her friends and family helped and supported her. And ultimately, she has begun to appropriate the norms practices of sewers and cosplayers, becoming a fuller member of the cosplay community.

The fun she feels while working on and wearing the costume are not secondary to the more “cognitive” and physical skills she’s learned. These positive emotions represent a relationship with the new skill that, while not always strictly necessary in order to learn, is crucial for developing an identity as the kind of person who likes and is able to do such things.

All of these elements—mind, activation, distributed cognition, doing/making, sociocultural context, and emotion/identity—are complexly intertwined within the learning process, and all are equally important.

(In order to keep track of the process of making this story/diagram, here is the "first draft" of the diagram I drew last week in class:)