Inspiring the Next Generation of Makers

Meet Parker Thomas, Fremont’s new FUSE Corps Executive Fellow, who will be spending the next 365 days forging the path for Fremont to become a Maker City. Parker will be collaborating with the City, the Fremont Unified School District, students, teachers, and local companies to create a Maker Education program for Fremont’s middle schools.

Read on to learn more about Parker’s passion for the maker movement, how building his own airplane turned out to be one of the most meaningful learning experiences of his life, and why he believes maker education will thrive in a city like Fremont.

Q: “Maker Culture” has become somewhat of a buzzword these days. How would you define the Maker Movement and why is it important?

Adam Savage of Mythbusters says, “All we do as humans is make things and tell stories about them.” We’ve actually been making things forever — it’s fundamentally what makes us humans.

But there’s definitely something different happening right now. I think it’s the result of two big trends. First, new tools such as laser cutters and 3D printers make it easier than ever to turn an idea into reality. A good 3D printer can be purchased for $500 and a laser cutter for $2,500. So if you want to prototype a part or create a 3D model of your head in cardboard, you can do it now in an afternoon.

At the same time, the web makes it easy to learn how to make new things, to share what you create, to sell your creations, or to create a community of people who like making the same thing. One only has to visit a Maker Faire to get a sense of how much people want to share and how much fun it is. When these powerful new capabilities are combined with ways to share, there’s an explosion of creativity.

But what makes this important is that we are finally recognizing the profound learning opportunities involved with making things. Making things uses a process of creative problem-solving and learning how to do this in school is actually pretty good preparation for the rest of life. Once we know how to shape the world around us, it’s a small leap to realize we can shape our own place in it.

Q: What was your first encounter with the Maker Movement and Maker Education? Any stories you can share with us?

Fifteen years ago, I decided I wanted to fly. Unfortunately, you still need an airplane to fly, and it turns out that airplanes are really expensive. But there’s a way around that— an airplane is much cheaper if you build it yourself. So I bought a kit and set to work. It’s a story for a much longer post, but the short version is that after 3,400 hours and countless, shall we say, learning opportunities, my little airplane took flight on Thanksgiving Day 2002. I flew it all over the country: up to Maine, through the Bahamas, over the Grand Canyon, below sea level in Death Valley, and many places in between. It was an amazing adventure.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that airplane turned out to be the most profound learning experience of my entire life. I certainly learned how to build, but in a larger sense, I discovered the learning style that works best for me. I learn by using my hands and I learn by doing. I suddenly understood why school, which I experienced as sitting in rows working on irrelevant problems, was so unfulfilling for me.

This project had one other huge impact on my life: it gave me the confidence to figure out other problems. I’ve gone on to build companies, toys, products, hovercrafts, and lots of other stuff in my shop. All of that was possible because building an airplane helped me develop a process I can apply to any problem and the confidence to believe I can figure it out, whatever the challenge might be.

I got involved with Maker Education because I wanted to help others learn how to make things and develop the confidence that they can take on any problem out there.

Q: What do you think are the top three characteristics of a “Maker”?

Well, first I would argue that we are all makers. But just like we can spend hours learning how to draw or learning how to cook, we can get better at making things exactly the same way we get better at everything else: practice. Here’s what I think are the three most important skills:

  • Knowing how to learn what you don’t know. Whatever knowledge our kids learn in school, it’s going to be outdated by the time they start work. I think this idea can best be summed up by this: learn-how is more important than know-how.
  • Willingness to learn by trying. This means understanding that it’s not possible to create anything without mistakes. That everything requires a Version 1 just so you can learn from it and get to Version 2.
  • Grit. Self-control and the determination to stick with it are absolute requirements when making things or solving problems.

Q: Why do you think Fremont is a prime spot for Maker Education to flourish?

Well, we make things here. The Warm Springs Innovation District has 850 manufacturing companies, 115 biomedical companies, and 50 cleantech companies. Every single one of those companies makes something, so this process of making things is embedded into the very fabric of our community. Now it’s just a matter now of figuring out how best to help students get excited about making things and to understand the career paths these skills make available.

Q: What do you hope students and teachers will get out of this Maker Education initiative?

I’m not sure what our initiative is going to be yet. I see my role here as a catalyst to help the community figure out what maker education means to Fremont and how we get from here to there. So I’m going to spend the next six weeks on a listening tour talking to everyone I can about your hopes and dreams, what’s working, and what’s possible.

Having said that, I do wish for three things, no matter what we create together. First, I hope that students will get the opportunity to grow their own creative problem-solving skills by practicing on many different projects. I hope that these projects can be passion projects and projects that can be integrated into the rest of their curriculum. Second, I hope that we can provide teachers with the training and the freedom to enable students to grow their own creative problem-solving skills. Finally, I hope that the community will get behind the initiative that we develop together in such a way that it will outlast my short tenure here.

One year will pass quickly, so please get in touch if you’d like to chat.

This article was originally posted in Think Silicon Valley.