Zero to Maker: Project-Based Learning

Over the next month-plus, David Lang, something of a reluctant maker, is immersing himself in maker culture and learning as many DIY skills as he can, through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’ll be regularly chronicling his efforts in this column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth

Prototypes for the OpenROV project that David is involved with

Some advice takes a while to sink in. Sometimes it takes a later moment of realization to bring it full circle, or as I like to call it the “So THAT’S why they told me [Insert Advice]” moment.

I had one of those moments after the Make: SF meetup I wrote about in my last column (where we soldered together the MintyBoost kit). Even though it was a fairly simple kit to assemble, I was able to learn a great deal because I was starting from scratch. I learned simple things like which way to hold the soldering iron and how to clean the tip before soldering — trivial to an experienced maker, but nerve-wracking to the newbie. As important as such subtle learning was, the big lesson didn’t hit me until the following day while I was showing a friend my MintyBoost: the journey from Zero to Maker was going to be primarily-project based. As much as I wanted to learn, I wouldn’t really absorb anything unless I had a project (or series of projects) to center that learning around.

Sounds obvious, maybe, and a number of experienced makers had told me exactly that piece of wisdom. However, when you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s tough to have a perspective on what project (or projects) to pick. Even though I fully recognized the importance of such learning, I still need to figure out which projects will suit my skill level. I also wanted to make sure that I have a project goal that’s audacious enough to keep me interested – something that seems out of my league and forces me to push my boundaries.

The way I see it, maker projects can be split into two main categories: Known and Unknown. A Known Project would be something that’s been done before, and fully documented, like assembling a MintyBoost. Known Projects seem ideal for beginners, an opportunity to learn to use new tools while simultaneously building confidence. If it’s a Known Project, all you need are the tools, materials, and instructions to get started. Unknown Projects, on the other hand, lack any instruction manual, and sometimes, even a clear outcome. With Unknown Projects, the challenge of true problem-solving can be both inspiring and engaging (and highly intimidating). Unknown Projects require a different way of design thinking.

Based on those two types of projects and what I hope to learn, I’ve decided that building my own OpenROV will be my audacious goal. Even though I’ve been tagging along with the folks involved in this project for awhile, I have contributed absolutely nothing to the design or production of the prototypes. I want to change that. A good amount of work has been done, but there are still a myriad of design challenges that need addressing. It’s definitely still in the realm of an Unknown Project. The completed aspects of the ROV design will be ideal Known Projects for me to learn new tools and processes from and the outstanding design challenges beyond that will require me to find new solutions and push my creative boundaries.

I’m planning to meet with a “Dream Coach” at TechShop to help flesh out the idea and break the big, unknown project goal into a series of smaller, achievable milestones. I’ll have more on that in a future column. Meanwhile, I’ve started a list of project-idea resources. I’m sure there are numerous others, what am I missing?

Known Project Ideas

Make: Projects – DIY project sites like Make: Projects are a great place to start. There’s everything there: from electronics to crafts, fabrication to food. Each project is categorized, so you can start at an area of interest and work your way down to a specific project you feel comfortable with.

Take a class – The great thing about classes is that, in addition to getting hands-on instruction from an experienced instructor, you’ll be supplied projects that are proven to be well within your skill level. For me, hands-on learning is the only way I’ll ever remember anything. I’m going to be taking classes at TechShop, which is a great option if you’re in the Bay Area. Community colleges are another way to gain the skills you want.

Unknown Project Ideas

Start with a problem – Is there something you want to do, but can’t? A tool you wish you had? Often times, this place of necessity is where the best Unknown Projects spring from. A good example of that would be these Desktop Jellyfish Tanks. Alex wanted his own aquarium for jellyfish, and when he couldn’t find one on the market, he went about building it himself. [Editor’s note: Read an interview with Alex Andon, featured in MAKE Volume 27, here.]

Improve upon an existing project or product – Trying to figure out how to do something with less, or modifying a product for your specific needs, can be another great way of developing an Unknown Project. OpenROV is definitely not the first submersible ROV, but our goal is to make it much cheaper and more accessible than commercial versions.

What are your feelings about the best means of project-based learning? What are some other project-based learning resources? Please share in the comments.