I have always liked working with my hands.
Excluding any of the early-year tissue paper-and-glue art projects, the first memory I have of making something was a cross-stitch class I took when I was 5 years old. I have long ago lost track of that small red heart surrounded by a small, red, plastic frame, but the memory has lived on for 32 years!
When I was 5 or 6 years old, my paternal grandmother taught me how to crochet. I mostly worked on projects that involved single or double crochet stitches. However, I always like to have something to work on with me constantly (you never know when you will end up being delayed in some way and I like to be productive with my time) so one day when I was in grammar school, a friend’s mom showed me the shell stitch to add to my repertoire. Crocheting started to fall out of my routine as I became a teenager, but I started it back up again in my early 20’s.
As a child, my mom signed me up for classes at Crafty Kitchen (a local business long gone) whenever she could and worked on lots of projects with me. She still does as we just took a sewing class together on July 6th at Urban Sewciety where we each made two zippered pouches. One sits next to me as I write this and holds my new collection of Pilot Frixion pens (which I discovered at ISTE).
But I digress.
Last week, I was given the opportunity to attend the Constructing Modern Knowledge Institute in Manchester, New Hampshire from July 11th to July 14th. I was unsure of what to expect, even with the information provided on the website and to be honest, after attending ISTE in San Antonio, I was so worn out, I wasn’t really looking forward to this next trip. But my school had paid for it and everything was arranged, so off I went.
I headed out to the airport on Monday the 10th and my approximately 1 hour flight from Newark to Manchester was delayed 1 hour. I should have already been there and I hadn’t even left yet. Great start to the trip. But still better than driving to a STEM workshop at Tufts last year for seven hours in the rain and fog. However, once I arrived, several things started to turn out for the better.
When the hotel I was staying in picked me up in the shuttle, there were five other people also being picked up. I met Julia, Heather, Kristy, and Bruce (and one other person I don’t recall) right off the bat and had a wonderful chat on the way to the hotel. OF COURSE we were all there to attend the same non-workshop. Heather kindly invited me to join her group from California for dinner, so it was nice to head into the conference having met a few people.
The next day, as the workshop commenced, our fearless leader Gary Stagner, using a brainstorming process that I would like to incorporate myself in my engineering class, asked us as a group “what do you want to make”. 20-30 ideas were bandied about, and some were eventually chosen as our projects for the week. I jumped into a group that wanted to make color-changing shoes. I love the idea of wearable tech and had only made one small project the year before as an example for my engineering class (and to prove that I could do it).
In this group I met five other lovely ladies, Kelly from Australia, and Mindy, Jan, Lauren, and Andrea from Pennsylvania. We decided that we would create a pair of sneakers that change LED color based on the number of steps walked by the user. This means we would have to incorporate micro-processors, coding, LED strips, a pressure sensor, sewing, power supply and more. Gary had warned us that we would have highs and lows as we worked on our project, but he said our lows would be pretty early.
Not so much!
That first day we soared! Our progress was one small step at a time. We broke up into smaller teams and played around with three different micro-controllers, Lilypad, Flora, and Adafruit Circuit Playground, eventually settling on the Flora. We made small steps with test programs and minor code changes so by the time we ended on Tuesday we had not felt that low. Our project was on its way and we had gotten the LED strip to light up in the color we wanted. But just wait!
On Wednesday, we started to discuss how we would get information back to the micro-controller to record the number of steps we took. This meant we had a number of options open to us from an electrically conductive material called Velostat (which was new to me), to force sensitive resistors, or push buttons. Certain choices seemed more appropriate for the situation, of being included in footwear, but no matter what we tried, or where we researched, we started to fail at the task. Later than when Gary said it would occur, but occur it did.
I was prepared for this. That was a major point of the project-based engineering class I started at my school last year. But this is also something I do in life constantly. I’m not a quitter, so if it doesn’t work the first time, I will revisit it another time. As an example, I tried to teach myself knitting in my early 20’s. My mom says I threw the knitting needles across the room when, after three hours of work, all I had was two tiny squares of practice stitches and realized I could have crocheted an entire scarf in the same amount of time. But six months later I dusted off the knitting needles, picked up the how-to booklet again, and finished work has been flying off the needles ever since. And I am glad that to say that I worked with group-mates at CMK that understood perseverance and had just the right amount of pluck!
But to keep us from being completely disheartened, wonderful, helpful, knowledgeable faculty members were always around to help nudge you back in the right direction and offer words of encouragement. It was at this time that Jaymes Dec sat down with us to try troubleshooting our problems with the Velostat. Was it the code? Was it the circuit? Was the Velostat defective? Seriously, it looks like Hefty-bag material. While still not working perfectly yet, he helped us at least get the temperamental Velostat to communicate with the micro-processor. The remaining amount of time in the day allowed us to feel some success and end on a high note, even though we were not anywhere near done.
On Thursday, we were given LOTS of time to work on our project, including a large chunk of time after dinner. We needed to spend this day getting a lot of the physical work done as we only would have about three hours the next day to finish up. Splitting up the tasks, Mindy and I worked on playing with the code, adjusting multiple times to finalize exactly what we wanted the shoe to do. Andrea, Jan, and Kelly focused on sewing the micro-controller to the shoe, glueing on the LED strip, fashioning a battery holder out of felt, etc. Now it was time to test everything out before we soldered our leads.
One shoe, no problem, everything works. The other shoe? Fuggetaboutit! Jayson had already let us know that the Velostat threshold value would change when we switched from computer power to battery power, but this shoe was not reacting like the other. We spent half an hour changing the code values, uploading, and testing before a couple of members of the team decided to take it back to our work table to brainstorm while we soldered the other shoe. At least we would have one working shoe, even if we didn’t have a pair.
A few minutes later, our group comes running back that they figured it out! It was where the battery was plugged into the micro-controller that was bad because the indicator light was not on when only plugged into the battery. They tried several batteries and none worked, so it had to be this instead. We all ran back to work, we’re ready to break the battery connector off the micro-controller and solder the battery directly to the Flora when Gary said he would send another faculty member over to review the situation before we did anything.
With Brian Smith’s camera in hand as collateral that he would be there to help shortly, Mindy came back to tell us we would have to wait a few minutes for assistance. Once Brian arrived, excitedly, we share what we found and what led to the conclusion. Brian picks up our shoe, gives it really, just a cursory glance, smiles at us, and proceeds to inform us that our micro-controller has a switch on it. And it was set to off.
Oops! Time for dinner!
After a mandatory dinner break, our group decided to take advantage of the optional late night session from 7:30-ish to midnight-ish. We used that time to do some final sewing and glueing so that we would not be rushing the last few details on Friday morning. And guess what? It works! As we ended our tasks for the night, Brian came back to join us, Bruce came over and we just had a nice random chat about our lives. After awhile, Gary joined in and at some point our convo switched to getting girls into the maker movement, and how Leah Buechley’s development of the Lilypad Arduino is a great starting place to hook them as females tend to already work a lot with fiber-based projects. Something about that conversation stayed in my subconcious, but I wasn’t aware of it, yet. Please hold for further details. After about and hour, hour and a half, it was time to bid each other adieu until the morrow.
Friday morning arrived and our group finished up the project early. While sometimes temperamental, it does light up, the colors change with number of steps taken, and the shoe responds to the pressure of the steps. We got the chance to see each others projects and at one point during this time, Brian Silverman, faculty member and co-developer of Logo, Scratch, Turtle Art, and more just wandered over to our group and started talking about his family, politics, and a few other things. It was at this moment that I realized – I was at a “non-conference” like any other I had ever attended. EVERYONE, from #CMK17 faculty to the teachers who all decided to put on their learner hats, all collaborated together, shared, and talked to each other as equals. There was no high-and-mighty thoughts, or know-it-all speeches. I could stand next to someone of the likes of Brian Silverman and just shoot the breeze. And not feel stupid. Okay, only a little stupid. And before I knew it, the event was over. And I was sad. This is the only “non-conference” I had ever attended where I wanted to cry when it was time to leave. I had met such wonderful people and had such a nice experience that I would do it again in an instant. Gary, in case you are wondering, I have a few ideas for (year 11, please???!!!) projects already floating around in my head.
On Saturday morning, it was time for me to fly back home. Back to Newark International Airport, back to my family and friends, back to work preparing for next school year. As I flew home, I worked on knitting a sweater for my nephew who was born this past April. I had brought three project with me in total on the trip, but never had the time to pull them out during the week. Then Gary’s comment from Thursday about females tending to break into making with fiber projects came back to me and ruminated in my mind.
Later on Saturday I went outside and glanced at my garden. I looked proudly at it, with happy, yellow, Durango marigolds waving in the breeze. The tomatoes are doing so well, even in the patch towards the front where everything usually grows lousy and stunted. Green beans were ready to pick. And I had made it. I pulled the weeds and planted the seedlings, diagrammed the positions of the plants, fought with the garden caterpillars, the white flies, the grey blight, watered and fertilized. I changed crops based on time and temperature, and kept planting seeds throughout the season.
And even though I had never felt like part of the maker movement before #CMK17, that’s the moment when I fully realized, yes, I am a maker.