MAKER DAD: Make Something Marvelous In Manageable Bites

MAKER DAD: Make Something Marvelous In Manageable Bites


As a Maker working with kids, I have had some great projects and some epic failures. One key to success seems to be in keeping the immediate scope of any project down to a manageable bite for the participants. By being careful to do a little less, you can ensure your groups are hungry to come back the next time.

Two years ago, 3D Systems gave my son Riley a Rapman3.1 printer kit to see how we would bridge the gap from Design to 3D Printing When we got the kit home, we opened it carefully and were overwhelmed by the sheer number of parts. We put it away and thought about it for several days before we began the build.

Riley, who was 12 years old at the time, was a pretty focused kid but I was aware of his attention span and his frustration threshold. I also factored my limits into the build. The overall build took about 30 hours and we were spread it over several weekends. Each day we scheduled to work on the build, we deliberately planned breaks and a time limit that we honored even if we were really excited about a specific piece of the assembly.

The breaks turned out to be crucial as we both needed to walk away from the build more than once out of sheer frustration with our own limitations. Even better: Once we had taught ourselves that breaks were important, it felt legitimate to step away when we simply couldn’t “get it right” with a specific segment. Riley and I both stormed off more than once as we built the RapMan Printer. It is worth noting that this was the most complicated build either one of us had attempted.

We were also careful to avoid the “all-nighter” mentality where you push through at all costs to get the job done. While we perhaps could have crammed those 30+ hours into a single weekend, I’m not sure that the build quality would have been as good. And I’m absolutely positive that Riley and I would not have liked each other very much when we finished.

We took our time, followed a process, built meticulously, making and correcting mistakes along the way until we had to face down one of my personal fears: wiring and schematics. Ever since I had failed to finish a Radio Shack kit when I was 12 years old, wiring tasks have given me bad dreams. Again, we worked on doing it in manageable bites and when we had convinced ourselves that we had it correct, we crossed our fingers and did the “smoke test.”

The smoke test in engineering is when you first power up a new construct and see if any smoke comes out -- generally a negative indictment of the design or craftsmanship.

Ours simply--and marvelously--came to life. By the end of the day, we had created our first 3D printed object. The little cup was neither pretty nor was it round. It was a cup though--and by the end of the next day it was water-tight and usable.

Throughout the entire process we learned the value of manageable bites: how to walk away as needed to reassess our abilities and to reassure ourselves that we could complete the project. The result was a printer that powered up and worked the first time around.

On a personal and professional level, Riley gained a lot of confidence (not that he lacked it in the first place) and he has become fearless about taking on new things. I’ve been able to apply the lessons to what we are doing in schools and at outreach events.

As Walt Disney said: “Always leave them wanting more.” Next time you have a complex lesson, project or event, how might you and your students (or child) benefit by doing a bit less and delivering a lot more?

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