Real Tools for Kids

Making Makers Column from MAKE Volume 29
Recently, while looking online for woodworking tools appropriately sized for my preschool daughter, I came across some construction sets geared toward children. Thinking fondly of the sets I had when I was little, I looked closely to see if I could find one suited for my kids.  

I was intrigued by one kit that promised “real” construction play. While the kits that I played with in elementary school typically included glue, nails, and a rough picture of something I could build with a hammer and maybe a saw, this kit included foam “wood,” plastic tools, and plastic nails. The promotional materials stressed that these are “real materials” and “real tools.” Real: yes. Realistic: no.

The really surprising thing was that this toy is labeled for children ages 6+ and, on Amazon, has a manufacturer’s recommended age range of 6–15. Minutes earlier I’d been confidently pricing hand drills and hammers. Now this toy seemed to be telling me I should wait on those tools until my daughter reaches middle school. So how old is old enough to hand kids real tools? 

Making objects is similar to making music. We would think it outrageous to wait until a student reaches university to give them their first non-toy musical instrument. However, many students reach their first year of college without much experience with tools. I recently spoke to an engineering professor who mentioned that when he asked a class of 35 first-year engineering students how many had used a drill press before, not a single hand went up. How many had taken apart one of their toys when they were younger? Again, not a single student raised a hand. And that’s in a roomful of future engineers.

The more I research children and tool use, the more I notice how things have changed. Kids were once trusted with real, metal tools.In the early 20th century, it was common for elementary schools to teach manual training. In 1900, Frank Ball, a teacher at the University Elementary School in Chicago, wrote, “At the present time no thoroughly equipped school is complete without its department of manual training or construction work.” A book written in 1964 by John Feirer and John Lindbeck, of the Industrial Education Department at Western Michigan University, talks about outfitting elementary school shops and advises that the tools should be maintained well, since “the sharp, well-cared-for tool is safe, easy and fun to use.” Very rarely these days do we hear “fun,” “sharp,” and “elementary school” in the same conversation.  

As a parent and a teacher, I understand the fear of injuries, and suspect it’s one of the reasons behind the decline in kids gaining hands-on skills. When it comes to tools, our risk aversion is causing more harm than good. The promotional video for the abovementioned “real” construction set showed how safe the tools are by having a child saw his hand with no injury. My 16-month-old daughter has plastic tools for now, but I’ll definitely correct her if I see her sawing her arm. We don’t do that with real tools, so I wouldn’t want her to do it with her plastic tools.
Combine an eager child, real tools and materials, appropriate training, and supervision, and you’ll be surprised by the results. More importantly, you’ll see a young maker who is gaining a useful skill and confidence in her ability to bring ideas to life.

AnnMarie Thomas teaches in the engineering and engineering education programs at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. She’s also the mother of two young makers.

This column first appeared in MAKE Volume 29, on page 27.

From the pages of MAKE Volume 29:

We have the technology (to quote The Six Million Dollar Man), but commercial tools for exploring, assisting, and augmenting our bodies really can approach a price tag of $6 million. Medical and assistive tech manufacturers must pay not just for R&D, but for expensive clinical trials, regulatory compliance, and liability — and doesn’t help with low pricing that these devices are typically paid for through insurance, rather than purchased directly. But many gadgets that restore people’s abilities or enable new “superpowers” are surprisingly easy to make, and for tiny fractions of the costs of off-the-shelf equivalents. MAKE Volume 29, the “DIY Superhuman” issue, explains how.



Alt.GDC: Take THAT Academy Awards!

Role-playing game superhero Warren Spector accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award

Last night’s gaming award double feature at GDC was an emotional roller coaster. From the misty-eyed acceptances of indy game developers, to laugh out loud videos from game comedy group Mega64, to inspired speeches, the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Choice Awards were as heart-warming as they were inspirational. But above it all rose industry icon Warren Spector (Steve Jackson Games, Wing Commander series, Ultima series, System Shock, Deus Ex, Epic Mickey). In accepting the Lifetime Achievement award, he moved newly minted indy developers and hardened industry vets alike with his message of encouragement in continuing to pursue their dreams and to make games as important as they are entertaining. Here are some of his comments:

Games are unique among all media, among all art forms. We’re not novels, we’re not movies, we’re not television. And we shouldn’t try to be these things. We can do things that no other medium in human history has ever been able to do. We have to focus on those things, the things that make us unique, and not on imitating other media… The key is for each of you to find your own take on what makes us special and to NEVER settle in pursuit of that. Do that and you’ll discover that games are more than a way to make some money… And you’ll inevitably create games that are more than just ways for players to waste time in endless button-mashing, key-clicking, and finger swiping (no matter how much fun that might be). We can provide players with experiences as profound, lasting, and life-changing as any novel, play, film, or television program. And if we can do that, we MUST do that — or we risk, deservedly so, to being relegated to the ash heap of history… Always strive to make your games special, make them SAY something, better yet, make the players SAY something, or learn something, about themselves, through their choices and their interactions. I promise you — effecting people’s lives, maybe changing people’s lives, is far more satisfying than generating a ton of revenue, or getting a great review. If you embrace the uniqueness of our medium and strive for greatness, even if you fail, your future, OUR future, will be bright.

After the event, attendees and online viewers were commenting on what a great show it was — well-produced, decently written, well-paced. The producers of the Oscars (and the VMAs) might learn a thing or two from the team that mounted this fun and spirit-rousing show.

Oh, and if you want to see all of the night’s winners, they’re listed here.

You can watch an archive of the awards here (IGF portion) and here (GDCA).


MAKE Visits the Open Source Ecology Project

OSE founder Marcin Jakuboski inside the fabrication facility

Maysville, Missouri. As I drove through Dekalb County an hour north of Kansas City, I heard a lot of country music and preachers on the radio. Stopping for breakfast in a small cafe, I picked up the local newspaper and noticed a front page banner declaring “395 Days Left in the Obama Regime.” And yet, in the midst of such bible belt sensibilities, something very radical is happening in northwest Missouri’s corn and soybean country: the Open Source Ecology project.

On the 30 acre Factor e Farm, located about a mile from the small town of Maysville, 39 year-old Marcin Jakubowski lives in what the locals refer to as “the mud hut.” The funky dwelling is made of mud, sandbags, and cords of wood, but Jakubowski, who earned a PhD. in physics after writing a doctoral thesis about velocity turbulence and zonal flow detection, has a pretty sophisticated tech operation at the farm. He’s building tractors and other industrial machinery from scratch.

The mud hut that serves as Marcin's current residence and office at the Factor e Farm

And Jakubowski efforts are getting noticed. Last year, he was named a TED Fellow by the non-profit foundation that gathers “world changing innovators” in the fields of technology, entertainment, and design. The Open Source Ecology project received a $100,000 grant from the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation to develop six prototypes of industrial and agricultural hardware, and later this month a formal announcement will be made that Jakubowski is being awarded a six-figure Shuttleworth Fellowship. A $40,000 Kickstarter campaign brought in $63,000.

And yet, despite all this, Jakubowski’s parents back in New Jersey are still giving him grief about getting a job with his physics degree.

Actually, Jakubowski does have a job of sorts.

“We’re trying to re-invent civilization,” he tells me during an interview inside his mud hut bedroom/office, which has a gravel floor partially covered by a rug and a mattress that appears to be suspended by rope from the ceiling. I am sitting at his feet on the floor pointing a shotgun mic at him for an NPR story. And I am not the only one in recent months to be sitting at the feet of this “farmer/technologist” who’s driven– obsessed really– with building what he calls the open source economy. Kindred spirits from as far away as Texas and California have come to Marysville to build prototypes of various machines. After the beta versions of the prototypes are completed, detailed plans on how to build them, including schematics and step-by-step assembly videos, are posted online. [Editor: Some here on Make: Projects!]

Before I went to Maysville, the farm was described to me as an “off-the-grid living situation.” I’ll say. The compound’s composting toilet is in the sawed-off top of a metal grain silo. Jakubowski chops firewood right outside his mud hut as chickens scramble about. During my visit, a college student from San Diego was staying in a small trailer and a little shack that’s less than 100 square feet was home to a cat with no name and an 18 year-old robotics wiz from Canada. He’s working on an open source CNC milling machine that will be used for printed circuit boards.

Known as the Hab Lab, the living space will accommodate 10 people

But a major expansion is underway. A dormitory for 10 people known as the hab lab and a 4,000 square foot fabrication facility are going up. Both are being made out of compressed earth bricks produced onsite by the Open Source Ecology compressed earth brick press (CEB). Some 10,000 of these DIY blocks were made for the residential structure. In early January, Jakubowski estimated that both would be finished before April 1st.

4,000 square foot fabrication facility

Floyd Hagerman, a Latherp, MO home builder who was hired to help with the construction, bought a commercially manufactured CEB press for $18,000 from Powell & Sons Inc., a New Mexico manufacturer. As a builder who was “trying to do the green thing long before the green thing was popular,” Hagerman is keen on earth brick construction.

“It doesn’t off-gas. It won’t burn. You don’t have to worry about termites. It’s soundproof. And it’s a very heavy wall, so it will take a lot of wind load,” he tells me. A lot of wind load as in tornado strength winds.

“These [compressed earth brick] homes that I’ve done won’t ever freeze,” Hagerman adds. “They get down to 45 degrees. That’s the lowest they get with no heat.”

A pile of compressed earth bricks inside of the fabrication facility

Hagerman has been impressed with the various characters who come and go at Factor e Farm.

“It seems there’s a lot of, I’ll say, real smart people with degrees working on projects around here and not only that, they actually have the skills to build this stuff,” he notes while mixing up a slurry to coat the tops of a row of earth bricks before putting another row on top of them.

Hagerman was explaining the process to 20 year-old Briana Kufa, who may not have a degree but sure can build stuff. A certified welder who rebuilt her Mercedes 300D, Kufa came to the farm on a previous visit and built four CEB presses using 1/8th inch steel for the body of the hopper and rebar for the grate over the opening. When she’s not in class at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo studying architectural engineering, Kufa is in her family’s machine shop in San Diego building aluminum bookshelves, which she sells. Like many of the others drawn to the Open Source Ecology Project, Kufa first heard about it via Jakubowski’s TED Talk after seeing a link to the video on a friend’s Facebook page. TED Talk videos are quite popular on the web and subtitles for Jakubowski’s have been translated into 41 languages, everything from Albanian to Vietnamese.

When I met Kufa in the fabrication facility on a mild winter afternoon, it had a roof, frame, concrete floor, but far from all the walls. I stood alongside her examining one of the CEB presses she made and was surprised to hear her say that building it was no big deal.

“It’s a lot of cutting, a lot of welding, a lot of torching and that’s basically all the skills you would need to make one of these,” she told me. “I could probably teach someone how to do those things in a day.”

Kufa has taken a two-year academic leave to work on the Open Source Ecology project. She plans to build the prototype for the ironworker, a machine for stamping holes and shearing metal, at her family’s fabrication shop in San Diego.

Her “anyone can do this stuff” attitude is shared by Jakubowski, who says, “If you can use a drill press, if you can pick up a welder and start welding, and if you can torch with an acetylene torch, you can build a tractor, you can build a CEB press, you can build just about anything we’ve built so far.”

Get Jakubowski to talk about his own technical proficiency immediately after grad school and he chuckles at the man who had almost no practical skills. In his TED Talk, he tells a story about the tractor he bought for the farm failing, shelling out thousands of dollars for a transmission repair job and the tractor failing again. This, he says, is was what prompted him to build his own tractor.

“A tractor is basically a solid box with wheels,” he told me, “each with a hydraulic motor. So, conceptually, it’s actually very simple. And when I first did it, it was, like, ‘Wow, a tractor, it’s impossible.’ I was amazed when it actually worked.”

The open source tractor can be produced, according to Jakubowski, in about four days with $6,000 in parts. There are a minimal number of welds needed because many of the parts, including the square steel tubing used for the frame, are largely bolted together.

And here’s where this is headed: Jakubowski says that by the end of 2012 he’ll demonstrate that someone with the coming open source induction furnace will be able to build the entire tractor using melted down scrap metal for a mere $500.

“If you have the induction furnace and 200 kilowatts of electric power, you can be melting the metal and then rolling it into the steel sections that are the raw steel for the devices that you are building,” he told me. “We hope to demonstrate that this year.”

A wall of the fabrication facility being made with compressed earth bricks

Jakubowski says the experience of making the tractor transformed him. He set about designing and building affordable alternatives to other agricultural and industrial machines. In addition to the Lifetrac tractor, which is designed for small-scale agricultural use as well as construction, prototypes have been completed for the CEB press, a soil pulverizer, and a hydraulic power unit, which is used in high-torque applications. Work is under way on prototypes for a drill press, a torch table, a CNC milling machine and the ironworker. At this point there are 50 machines in what Jakubowski calls the Global Village Construction Set, the tools and technology needed for modern civilization. The set includes a wind turbine, cement mixer and sawmill.

Prototyping work on the power cube, an internal combustion engine combined with a hydraulic pump, and a torch table is going on in Texas.

Jakubowaki says three CEB presses have been sold so far for $8,000 a unit. He says two people will use them to build homes in Texas and Oklahoma and a third person is planning to use one to make an apartment complex in LA. And he says two tractors were sold for $15,000 a piece. One is being used in Indiana but added that there have been “issues.”

The first “replication” of the CEB press was completed at a small community outside Austin, Texas this fall. A group in Cedar Creek, Texas called Creation Flame led by James Slade, a self-described software guy, put it together. Slade, too, was attracted to the Open Source Ecology project after watching the TED Talk video.

“It was like, finally, for the first time in my life I knew what I had to do,” Slade told me. “It was like, I have to do this.”

Slade says he didn’t know how to weld and he hadn’t had much machining experience, so it took weeks to make the parts for the CEB press and assemble them, though Jakubowski estimates that without the learning curve, it can be done in as little as four days.

“You know, it took some learning. We made some errors. But if I can do it, just about anybody can do it,” Slade tells me during a phone interview.

He was impressed that the CEB press worked from the get go and as the first bricks rolled off the machine he and his compatriots were ecstatic.

“It was kind of like giving birth. It was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. We built this, we did this and here’s the result.’”

Slade says that with 1500 homes in the area destroyed by recent fires, his CEB press, which he plans to rent out to home builders, can play a role in the rebuilding effort. He also plans to use it to construct a new shop and living spaces on Creation Flame’s three and a half acre spread. Now that he has one replication under his belt, Slade says he plans to make more CEB presses and sell them for around $8,000 or $9,000. He’s also planning to make the Open Source Ecology earth pulverizer and tractor.

Slade spent time at the farm in Missouri helping and learning. He’s one of a steady stream of people who have made the trek. Jakubowski is getting ready to start hiring the first of what will hopefully be an on-site permanent staff, he has indicated that a community with as many as 200 people could eventually settle at the farm. In a video for his application to the Shuttleworth Fellowship program, Jakubowski says Open Source Ecology will be hiring four full-time fabricators at Factor e Farm who will receive a share of the profits of machinery made there. He also expects to hire a full-time farmer and full-time production manager this spring. In the meantime individuals with expertise in specific disciplines who embrace the open source credo will continue to make dedicated project visits lasting two weeks to a month to the farm.

“We’re trying to skim skilled people from the real world we can pay for their travel and accommodations here to have them work with us,” Jakubowski says. Especially retired people.

Jakubowski predicts that within a year or two they’ll be smelting aluminum from clay and silicon from sand on the farm. Also on the agenda is building a prototype of a power cube that runs on steam power produced from pelletized biomass.

“Production can happen on an unprecedented small scale,” Jakuboski insists. “I believe that any community can be producing its own energy, technology and machinery.”



How-To: Molded Plywood Furniture

Detailed, hands-on how-to info on a very rich manufacturing process that is rarely attempted by DIYers. Instructables user pseaton covers the process of designing and building your own molded plywood forms all the way from initial design considerations, through mold construction and veneer pre-treatment, to actually laying up the veneers and cleaning up the finished form. Very cool stuff, especially if you’ve got access to a CNC router that can accelerate construction of the mold parts.

Bent Plywood Night Stands



Win a Raspberry Pi From Element14

element14, the first collaborative community and electronics store for design engineers and electronics enthusiasts, powered by Premier Farnell [LSE:PFL], is giving Raspberry Pi fans around the world a chance to win one of three of these hotly desired gadgets.

Launched today, the global “Raspberry RoadTest” Challenge poses the question: “What innovation will youcreate using the amazing Raspberry Pi computer?” Designers and enthusiasts can enter the challenge by signing up on the Raspberry RoadTest page on the element14 Community and submitting ideas for the innovations they would create using this credit card-sized computer. The winner will be chosen on “Pi Day” – 14th March 2012.

element14 RoadTest has become increasingly popular among community members. Members receive a device to test and review from element14, then blog about their developments, discoveries and innovations on the community as well as their own blogs and forums. These blogs and reviews are used by other designers to connect with each other and be inspired.

The Community has experienced a 30 fold increase in traffic since the recently launched element14 Raspberry Pi Group and product launch last week. Additionally there have been over 30,000 downloads of the operating system software – amassing over 30 Terabytes of file transfers.


Remote Dog Feeder with Twitter and Arduino

Nat Morris is a maker with a penchant for home automation. The latest gadget he made uses an Arduino clone with ethernet capability and some bits and pieces from inkjet printers to feed his dog via Twitter. He even has an IP camera to keep an eye for when the dog seems hungry.

[via Arduino Blog]



Natural Slate Electrical Panels

We’ve already had some great reader suggestions for Natural Materials month. The first that caught my eye this morning is from MAKE pal and Flickr-pool-roundup regular John Honniball, aka anachrocomputer, who directs our attention to the use of natural slate panels as insulators in vintage electrical equipment. Above, a beautiful example from the Canada Science and Technology Museum: The switchboard control panel from the Sault Ste. Marie canal power house, manufactured in 1895 by Canadian General Electric.

And this is a set of wonderfully “mad science” knife switches on natural slate baseplates. I’m not sure if these are antiques or reproductions, but John photographed them at Maker Faire Newcastle 2010. If anyone has more info about their provenance, please do let us know, below.

Artifact Spotlight – Switchboard Panel from the Sault Ste. Marie canal power house
Maker Faire 2010: Knife Switches

[Thanks, John!]


Weekend Workshop Returns to Oakland

Workshop Weekend is a community-based two-day event that brings together dozens of short, hands-on workshops across a variety of disciplines, from crafting to engineering to gardening, all taught by local, passionate instructors with years of experience in their craft.

We’re doing a few things differently from last time. This time, we’re just charging one admission fee – $30 – and folks can take as many workshops as they like, paying just for materials. We’ve also added a number of workshops that might appeal to makers, on topics like building a covert listening device, programming the Arduino, and making a camping stove. (And we’ve added a number of craft workshops, like soap making, bath salt making, knitting, and geeky cross-stitching.)

Interested in signing up? Use the code MAKEZINE12 at checkout to get 10% off.

Workshop Weekend: A celebration of creating and learning


“Rise of the Maker Movement” on The Stream

Love this Al Jazeera piece (on their Stream blog) about making. They interview MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis on the show, and the article hits everything from 3D printing to hackerspaces to the Global Village Construction Set to Joey Hudy‘s marshmallow cannon. Check it out!

Rise of the Maker Movement


Romanian Teenager Puts Space Shuttle Back in Space

On January 5, 2012, Raul Oaida posted the following update to his blog:

On the 31st of December I launched the Black Sky project payload with two HD cameras. I recovered the rig ~240km away (320 km on the highway) in excellent condition from a hillin a remote area. I wasn’t able to use the NewTrent external battery for extra camera videotaping time so the 2:20 h video cuts out before the balloon burst at about 30-33km. I used a 1600g balloon with a SPOT GPS tracker for the recovery. I will submit a more detailed posted after the 16GB in flight video is edited and uploaded to youtube, the ”payload” was a LEGO space shuttle.

About a month later, he posted the embedded video to YouTube.  The entry on his blog from that date kinda says it all:

This was all done by me.

He had problems getting the necessary permits in his native Romania, so the launch took place in Germany.

2001: A Brick Odyssey

[Thanks, Alan Dove!]


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