This week I'm returning from a busy, thought-provoking, and inspiring three days at the annual Ecsite (european network of science centres and museums) conference in The Hague. For the second year in a row, I worked with a group of collaborators to create a dynamic and engaging makerspace that ran throughout the conference. This year our plans were more ambitious than the last, as we tried to coordinate a full schedule of presentations, activities, and conversations.
We came to the world forum center a day early and began transforming the makerspace into a more free-flowing environment than the regular lecture rooms. We had arranged for a couple 3D printers, a laser cutter, and a bank of soldering irons for people to experiment with, so we started setting up the materials and tools so that they would be accessible throughout the event. In the course of testing the laser cutter, we nearly set off the fire alarm, but fortunately the event center staff was understanding of our smoke and mess.
I also began arranging tables on one side of the room for a collaborative chain reaction that we would construct together with conference-goers over all three days. It was a little cramped for space but we ended up figuring out how to make an interesting shape out of the tables.
The day before the opening we connected with Xander and Mick from the trashlab, a local makerspace that runs workshops in Museon, the science center that hosted the conference. We set of a space for them and they spent the whole time with us creating 3D printed bracelets and helping conference-goers build vibrating robots made of everyday materials.
On the first morning of the conference we had a full house for the introduction session to the space and the overview of maker movement in general and in our institutions. That set the tone for the next three days as each one of our panels and presentations filled the room. You could sense the excitement about the possibilities of making and tinkering spaces in museums. Our fearless presenters led sessions in the makerspace on topics including how to bring maker faires into museums; exhibit prototyping; the logistics of setting up and sustaining a makerspace; and the intersection of business, art, and the maker movement.
In the last session on Thursday afternoon a group of us led about 30 participants in a session where they worked in teams to construct a portion of a Rube Goldberg machine. We only had about one hour and twenty minutes for them to build but we were impressed with the work and creativity that people demonstrated.
Jon, Jean-Michel, and Hedinn worked out a finale that used a clothespin skewer stick shooter that started the laser cutter printing a sign that said "the end". I had never seen that before! We continued work on the chain reaction over the course of the conference, and I'll do a separate blog post about the activity later on in the week.
For the makerspace we had a couple of explainers/staff from Museon who were responsible for helping us run the room, collect evaluations, etc... But of course they started checking out the activities and tools and began to ask questions. Two of them, Meg and Renske, got introduced to the laser cutter by Jean-Michel and began designing jewelery and cutting out the pieces with the machine. One of the most gratifying experiences of the conference was to hear them say, "we are makers" at the end of the three days.
For this year's version of the space we also included open times that were labeled general making sessions in the programme. I think this worked nicely and gave people the chance to ask questions about the digital fabrication tools, work together on the chain reaction machine, or have conversations with each other about tinkering and making in museums. We often talk about how tinkering is a different type of 'learning' and I definitely noticed that after sitting and listening to speakers for most of the day, conference-goers were ready for some hands-on interaction. It was really fun to see how people who initially said, "I'm not creative" or "I can't make anything" got deeply involved in the process and ended up designing some really interesting mechanisms and spent a lot of time with us in the space.
Having a laser cutter available in the space was also a nice touch and something that I'd like to try in the tinkering studio back at the exploratorium. People built small parts for the chain reaction machine, printed out business cards, and came up with other creative ideas. I was especially tickled by Luisa's customized clock face.
On the last day of the conference there was a festive mood in the room. Jon set up colorful flags outside, Erik from strawbees popped in to do some demonstrations, we brainstormed ideas for exhibits at museon and set off the final version of the chain reaction machine. Most importantly, people began forming connections with others who are trying or thinking about prototyping makerspaces, tinkering activities, and fablabs in their museums and science centers. It was great to see a big list of people who shared their email addresses to be part of a larger network of people trying this way of teaching and learning at their institutions.
Thanks to all who led sessions, planned and participated in the space. We can't wait to start thinking about how to make the space bigger and better in Trento for 2015.