Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

Making, Education, and Innovation: Inspiring Makers in Underrepresented Communities


Lego wars with young Makers.

Maker Faire invites young Makers to enter a world of innovation and imagination. If you can dream it, you can build it—particularly as experienced Makers are on-hand and willing to share what they know. How can we better encourage a broader participation in this science and technology showcase by underrepresented groups—beginning in the very neighborhood where the event takes place?

The Most Diverse Borough in the Most Diverse City

Descending the steps from 7 train at Junction Blvd in Corona, I pulled up the zipper on my Tarheels sweatshirt. The morning was cool in the way of September mornings, but not quite yet crisp as October can be. We are in the transitional space between seasons in New York City, when the pulse of activity shifts in accordance with the weather. But the chill had done nothing to slow the bustle of this busy Queens thoroughfare: the bodegas were already open, the vendors selling food from shopping carts were already in place, and strains of Aventura—a popular bachata group—could be heard faintly.

I was on my way to World Maker Faire, a tech and science-oriented showcase of DIY innovators, held at the New York Hall of Science. And I had gotten off a few stops early on the train—not by design: I hadn't been paying attention, and my internal compass had failed me. But rather than get back on the train, I thought it would a good chance to wander the neighborhood which had served as a field site for me in the past.

If Queens is New York City's most diverse borough, I've always felt that Corona and the surrounding areas of Jackson Heights, Flushing, and Elmhurst are fair examples of why that's the case. Corona, a predominantly Hispanic/Latino neighborhood, exhibits traces of influence from these other neighborhoods and includes includes Asian Americans, Italian Americans, and African Americans in its resident tally. It is largely an immigrant neighborhood, with many of its number employed as undocumented laborers. According the US Census Bureau, approximately 20% of residents live below the poverty line—the average income for a family of four is reported at about $35,000, but that only accounts for reported monies. For the laborers who work in the nearby auto "junk yards" of Willets Point, and the women who sell home-cooked meals from shopping carts, this number may be far less.

As I wound my way through the neighborhood, signs of the economic times were ever present, but the line of children's bikes bearing signs for sale in the front of a multiple family dwelling tugged at me hardest. A pink bike with a white basket and training wheels bore a hand-lettered sign from a page torn from a notebook reading "$5.00." I stopped to survey the bikes—there were four in all, used but in good condition. I slipped my hand over the camera in my bag just as the curtain twitched. I let the camera lie, and I moved on. I didn't think I'd need a picture to remember the image of those bikes sitting in the not-quite warmth of the September sun.

At the Maker Faire gates on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011.

As I picked up my credentials at Maker Faire, many families with excited children passed me. Dads and moms shared their children's enthusiasm, and noisily selected events to attend. My ticket scanned, I looked through the fence across 111th Street, where a row of apartment houses lined the block. A duo of young girls stood watching the festivities from their balcony. They could not have been more than eight. As the faces of young, excited potential Makers streamed by with their parents, it struck me that very few of these kids resembled the population of the neighborhood I had just wandered through.

Could we excite them in the same way? What could they contribute if shown the basics of mechanics and technology? Or are we going to leave them behind as we embrace a more digitally-conducive society?

Making, Education, and Innovation: STEM Education Initiatives

How do we bring more kids to Maker Faire?

This was the question that moderator and Maker Faire creator Dale Dougherty posed to open the panel on Makers and STEM education, which featured White House policy leader Tom Kalil, New York Hall of Science CEO Margaret Honey, and Cognizant CEO Francisco D'Souza.

Making, Education, and Innovation panel (l-r): Cognizant CEO Francisco D'Souza, White House Policy Leader Tom Kalil, NYSCI CEO Dr. Margaret Honey, and Maker Founder Dale Dougherty.

The question itself had broader implications—Maker Faire is a fantastic venue for connecting young Makers with mentors, but Dougherty asked, "what do kids do the day after Maker Faire?" Continued engagement is key to fuel the interests and excitement that we all witnessed over the course of the event.

Tom Kalil sees this engagement as integral to the economic future of the country: it means preparing children today for the jobs that will soon be vacated by an aging workforce, and giving them access to not just the tools that will drive innovation, but mentorship as well. "We need to let young boys and girls get their hands dirty," said Kalil. He wants to encourage them to make things, to ask questions, and to discover. He wants to unleash the creativity of different groups because they will likely reveal solutions that we've not yet considered to problems we've wrestled with for some time.

Young Makers at Maker Faire 2011.

To do this, we'll have to make some changes to our educational system. "Schools have been good at helping certain types of students succeed," said Dougherty. The importance of alternative learning spaces can't be overlooked at a time when the ways in which we are relating to and experiencing our world is changing. As a leader in education, Dr. Honey hopes the New York Hall of Science will help lead these sorts of shifts in thinking with the unveiling of a permanent Maker Space set to open in early 2012. Funded by Cognizant, a global IT consulting organization, CEO Francisco D'Souza agrees that the 21st-century will require more than just an understanding of STEM. "The bar keeps moving," he said. "We need creativity too." The space will encourage children to get hands-on and make, test, and display things, employing design and technical skills.

But this still serves a self-selected audience. The initiative that holds greater promise of connecting with groups who might not make the Hall of Science a part of their weekend plans is an after-school and summer program called Making the Future, a result of a partnership between The New York Hall of Science, Cognizant, and Make Magazine. Working through the Maker Educational Program, Cognizant plans to launch the program in up to 20 locations in various communities around the US before expanding nationwide over the next five years.

This may prove a crucial means to connect local children—right here in Corona—with STEM technologies and other Maker communities. These groups often have Maker subsets that may not necessarily fit the traditional perception of Makers. Dr. Honey made mention of local, cultural Maker practices in the surrounding communities that range from Henna designs to food traditions. I wouldn't overlook practical skills either, such as those learned in the number of auto-repair shops that employ members of this community.

With educational funding shrinking, partnerships like this one that involve commercial and industrial entities can provide the means of creating and preserving programs with long-term impact, much in the way NetDay helped implement the widespread use of the Internet in Californian schools with support from Sun Microsystems and Pacific Bell. These sorts of partnerships also encourage greater awareness of CSR. After all, in an increasingly connected world, organizations are also community members.

The Double Digital Divide

Having access to the technological tools means little without the means to understand and use those tools. The importance of digital literacy has gained ground in recent years. And why not? As we turn to the Internet increasingly for information, transact the majority of our daily business online, and manage data digitally, it is not reasonable to presume that laptops have no place in the classroom, despite concerns about cognitive implications.

A growing number of educators are helping students gain familiarity with digital media by employing new media in their lesson plans. Things like class blogs and class hashtags on Twitter help connect with students already immersed in this world, and introduce those who may not be participating yet to modes of communication that are quickly becoming mainstream. During Social Media Week 2010, a recurring topic was the ways in which digital agencies could help encourage digital awareness, diminishing the double digital divide.

Mark Greenlaw, Cognizant VP of Sustainability and Educational Affairs and program director of Making the Future believes we can have broader impacts through these sorts of initiatives. As a global entity, Cognizant works with its employees in India in a similarly structured program called Project Outreach to share knowledge with local communities and help provide access to English-language tutoring, computer classes, and basic tools like (physical paper) notebooks.

It is perhaps another iteration of "think global, act local." But I hope that next year's Maker Faire features some exciting work from local kids who perhaps watched this year's event from the other side of the fence.


Addendum 9/30/2011: Since posting this piece, I've been in touch with NYSCI's CEO Margaret Honey and Director of External Affairs Tania Tiburcio who have shared some of the ways they worked to involve the local community in Maker Faire, including offering half price tickets and a 25% discount to non-members. Tiburcio also contacted local schools and insured that key members of the Parent's Associations and interested principals were invited. NYSCI also held an after-school program prior and invited the most active participants to Maker Faire. I'll be writing more about NYSCI's minority and local STEM initiatives in the coming week -- stay tuned.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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