Make Better Stuff empowers people to make products, services, and systems that strengthen human relationships. We reach people by way of hands-on workshops in creativity and collaboration; in posts on this blog (scroll down for posts); and in an advisory board comprised of academics and professionals in the arts, technology, and business.

I’m Xanthe Matychak, founder of Make Better Stuff. I’m a designer and educator working at the intersection of creativity, technology, and sustainability. I’ve shared my work at national venues such as SxSW, World MakerFaire, and TEDx. Let’s make something amazing together.

Write me at xanthe.matychak@gmail.com

Reflection

It’s coming time to see all my people at the holidaze then hibernate for the winter with a few good projects. It’s time to look back at the year, remember what happened, and process it. Here goes:

LUNAR CLOCK, DEC 2013. This time last year I was finishing up a lunar clock that KR helped me with. This was a project that combined interesting media theory (a bit from Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock) with cool technology (laser cutter, arduino, and eagle). I enjoyed turning theory into a designed object–something I could hold in my hands. That’s me in a nutshell. In order to understand something, I have to build it and hold it.

GAME COURSE, JAN 2014. This year started with teaching a pilot course at Ithaca College called “Designing Games for Sustainability.” The class was small but we busted out two cool games. One was an arduino powered waste-sorting game and the other was a laser cut variation of Settlers of Catan called Wasteland. It was amazing to come up with cool ideas and then be able to manufacture and test them. Ideas into reality.

SUSTAINABILITY, MAY 2014. When the semester ended in May, I joined my ASU Sustainability crew at ISSST in Oakland for a great conference. And again in July for a desert retreat. Both gatherings were fun and enlightening in different ways. The former was in an urban setting and academic. The latter was in the desert and spiritual. What I love about these folks is that they value all of it. These people feel like home to me.

MIT >> POP UP DESIGN STUDIO, AUG 2014. In August I traveled with JC to MIT for a Scratch conference. There we met amazing people in the Harvard Grad School of Edu and were so inspired by their work that we came back to our makerspace and implemented a new project called “Pop Up Design Studio.” On the first friday of each month, we open our doors to the public and invite them to make art on the laser cutter. The combination of generosity on the volunteer side with creativity on the public side has been joy to be a part of.

TEACHING, SEP 2014. This fall I’ve been teaching 4 classes in the Integrated Marketing Communications program at Ithaca College and loving every minute of it. As an introvert, teaching 80 students is intense, but there’s nothing I’d rather spend my energy on. The program and the students have this great mix of business and creative thinking going on. It’s a pleasure and a challenge integrating the two – the practical with the wild dreams!

UPCOMING, DEC 2014. In ten days or so I see my family for the holidays. When I get back, I dig into some juicy projects for the winter: product design, electronic music, and a few workshop gigs I’ve got cooking. Winter is a great time for projects. Then when the sun comes out in May, there’s time for being outside with nature and friends. I like seasons and the structure they bring to my year.

LOCAL FOOD. On the local food side of life, I enjoyed a farm share at Sweet Land Farm this past summer and am now a week or so into a winter share from Full Plate Collective. These things keep me connected to the soil, the water, and the air. I’m grateful to the farmers who put it all together.

Let me know how 2014 treated you and what you’re up to this winter.

XO

from ‘What We Know’ to ‘A New Aesthetic’

When we invented industrial manufacturing, we looked to Victorian era products and mass-produced everything from dishware to ovens with Victorian ornamentation. We did this until the Bauhaus came along and demanded that new technologies require a new aesthetic. The members of the Bauhaus “listened” to modern materials and processes and “heard” that they wanted to be simple and clean and not covered in lacy decor.

Another example: When we invented computing, we grabbed what we knew – a type writer and a TV set – and mashed them together to make a desk top computer. Only today are other types of computing starting to take hold. Google glass is a known example of mobile and hands free computing. Smart products with simple micro-controllers, another. Computing is finally moving beyond sitting at a desk or having your head down in a phone screen.

Today we have the desktop manufacturing revolution. There are all kinds of new technologies becoming available but none other has captured the publics’ imagination like 3D printing has. I think this is because the objects that a printer makes look like objects that we know from the store. Objects from 1950-2000 that are enclosed in injection molded plastic. Which is ironic because this late 20th c. aesthetic is the epitome of hiding a products’ inner workings from consumers–ironic because makers are interested in openness and product transparency.

We’re in that early stage of a new technology – making what we already know. It’s just what we do. In art school, that’s how I learned to draw – from copying 16th century masters. But I wonder how long it will take us to move from making what we know to demanding a new aesthetic–to listening to these new materials and processes and hearing what they want to be. And I wonder who will lead this change.

The Value of Dreaming

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If you read this blog, then you know that one of the things I do is teach people how to brainstorm. I pride myself on not only giving people permission to suspend their judgement and generate 100s of wild ideas, but on giving them assessment tools for these ideas. After a brainstorm, I ask folks to plot their ideas on a grid with “safe ideas” and “wild ideas” at the ends of one axis and “easy to implement” and “hard to implement” at the ends of the other. Now, since I’m usually working with people who have to build their ideas, I ask them to choose an idea in the “wild and easy” quadrant. This is so they can move forward with a wild, creative idea that is easy to build and test a minimum viable product (mvp).

But this semester I am teaching Brand Design. The project for the semester is for students to make a brand book for a company that they imagine. So we started the project by brainstorming on what they would like their companies to be. As usual, after their brainstorms I asked them to plot their ideas on the grid I describe above. But when it came time to hone in on an idea, I realized that they don’t have to build the companies that they are dreaming up, so they don’t have to consider how difficult it is to implement their ideas. I realized that they can and should choose an idea from the wild and hard to implement quadrant. Why not?

This insight immediately reminded me of the work of Syd Mead, pictured above. Mead created concept work for the Ford Motor Company in the 1960s and later did work for the films Blade Runner and Tron. Mead never had to implement the concepts he came up with. He was paid, and paid handsomely, to dream.

A few years back Roger Martin, then dean of the Rotman School of Management, wrote a piece called “Reality is the Enemy of Innovation.” In it he laments the lost art of abductive reasoning, which calls for constant adjustments to your conclusions after each iteration, like Dr. House does when exploring treatments to complex medical conditions. This form of reasoning allows us to ask the question “What might be?” We’ve replaced abductive reasoning with more one-dimensional methods like inductive and deductive reasoning. These methods are valuable, for sure. But do they encourage us to explore our dreams?

Another related piece popped up in my news feed this morning titled, “Is There a Creativity Deficit in Science?” It points out the irony that the researchers who have the most predictable ideas get funded but that what we need for innovation is to fund researchers who have unpredictable ideas. That starving artist thing ain’t no joke. Artists are able to do what they do because they distance themselves from market constraints.

Which makes me wonder, when we shoot down an idea because there’s not an obvious market for it, are we robbing ourselves of those ideas? When we kill dreams, are we killing the seeds of potential solutions to the complex problems we face? And if that’s what we’re doing, how do we make it stop?

related reading:

Syd Mead

Reality: the Enemy of Innovation? 

Is there a creativity deficit in science?

Abductive reasoning

House and Philisophy

Lean Startup MVP

Repost: 4PS OF THE MEDIA LAB

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This post originally appeared at http://ithacagenerator.org/

Last week a fellow IG member and I went to the Scratch Conference at MIT Media Lab. Scratch is a visual programming language developed by folks in the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT and the Graduate School of Education at Harvard. The goal of the project is to help kids (and adults) transform themselves from “consumers of stuff” to “makers of stuff.” (Sound familiar?)

What impressed us about the conference is that it wasn’t only focused on technology, but on the social aspects of engaging with technology. The Media Lab has four principles that guide their techno-social-creative process: PROJECTS, PEERS, PASSION, and PLAY.

PROJECTS

Makers don’t just talk about ideas. They make stuff. So PROJECTS are the physical manifestations of making. We participated in two project-oriented workshops:

1. DIY CARDBOARD INTERFACE https://vine.co/v/MVmqeOYPP6b
by https://twitter.com/adlogi
2. ARDUINO + SCRATCH https://vine.co/v/MVKUblOhZ6X by https://twitter.com/qramo

Both workshops were scaled well and effective. Something that stood out to us was how the participants, who are educators from around the globe, interacted with each other. We helped each other troubleshoot and explore. All of us seemed comfortable with rapid trial and error. Which leads to the second principle – Peers.

PEERS

In the keynotes, there was a lot of emphasis put on the role of peers when we are learning to program or make things. In the keynote on Day 2, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl https://twitter.com/ElyseEA of the National Writing Project said something that hit home. Now, her project is to transform “readers” in to “readers who write” but you can see the connection to transforming consumers to makers. Elyse pointed out that hour-long workshops have their place because they introduce people to writing. But to become a writer, one needs to engage with a community over time. They need to share their work. They need to get and give feedback. They need to mentor and be mentored. Something to think about as we look at our programming at the makerspace. How do we nurture our community so that more Ithacans can go through this transformation?

PASSION

One thing we think about at IG and in tech overall is how to foster more diversity and inclusion in our community. One way to help more kids and adults learn technology is to offer experiences that enable them to tie technology – which is new and foreign to them – to something that they are already passionate and knowledgable about. Then the technology becomes less of a scary thing that newbies can’t do and more of a new tool for expressing ourselves. This passion principle is held by Harvey Mudd College where they offer joint majors that allow people to integrate a field they are passionate about with CS. It seems to be pretty effective with women filling over ½ of their CS student slots.

PLAY

There’s a lot of talk about PLAY in the creativity space. At MIT, they make an interesting distinction between PLAYGROUND play and PLAYPEN play. The playground is a social environment where we interact with people and explore our decision making processes. In the PLAYPEN, our activity is more constrained. We don’t have the freedom to reach outside of ourselves. So when we are designing playful environments, it’s important to keep this distinction in mind.

The last session we went to at the conference was a session hosted by women who created the FAMILY CREATIVE LEARNING https://twitter.com/ricarose guide and GUERILLA POPup MAKERSPACEhttps://twitter.com/GuerrillaMakers. Both projects integrate all 4 Ps of the Media Lab. Here’s a secret they shared that we really love, “The aesthetic of these things is that it should feel like a family gathering. We always start with food.”

YOUR TURN

We welcome your insights on the 4 Ps or other principles that have captured your imagination. Share them with us in the comments or on our facebook or twitter streams.

Repost: Encouraging Young Women in STEM

this piece origially appeared at IthacaGenerator.org

Last week, Ithaca Generator makerspace (IG) partnered with Xraise, the outreach program at the Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-based Sciences and Education, to host a week-long GERLS Camp for middle school girls. GERLS is an acronym developed by the program’s leaders Lora Hine, director of outreach at Xraise, and Claire Fox, education coordinator at IG. The acronym stands for “Girl Engineers Really Love Science!”

The camp had 11 girls participate from a number of area schools in Tompkins County. Additionally, several female mentors* from Cornell University, Ithaca College, and downtown institutions worked with the girls throughout the week.

THE FACTS ON WOMEN IN STEM

According to a 2012 Girls Scouts report titled, “Generation STEM,” women are not well represented in engineering, computing, and physics with only 20% of bachelor degrees in these areas earned by women and 26% of women with STEM degrees pursuing careers in STEM.

The report provides evidence on why these numbers are so low. While interest in STEM among high school girls is high, these same girls don’t necessarily want careers in STEM. They want jobs in which they can be creative, solve problems, work collaboratively, and make the world better. And the way that STEM is taught in many high schools now, it’s hard for girls to see that connection.

Another problem is that many girls don’t have STEM role models. When we asked one of the mentors at GERLS camp, computer scientist Jennifer Westling, why she thought there aren’t many women in STEM, she responded, “As a girl, I never knew any women engineers or scientists. As a result, I just didn’t envision myself in those roles.”

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?

Research coming out of the Center for Collective Intelligence at MIT finds that there is a positive correlation between the number of women on a team and how smart the team is. So it’s important that women have opportunities to not only get in to these teams but to make sure these places are designed so that women can succeed once they are in.

GERLS Camp mentor Jenn Colt adds this insight, “We’re not going to solve the important problems facing us today if we have half the population convinced that they aren’t smart enough to take on these challenges. We don’t need everyone to be a scientist but we need everyone believing that they have important contributions to make and their gender doesn’t determine the value of their ideas.”

WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

In a 2014 interview with Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College–a place where they’ve worked to get over half of the students in computer science to be women–Dr. Klawe lays out her insights on how to engage more women in STEM. ‘First, the intro courses need to be compelling, tying STEM to real world problem solving and creativity. Second is building confidence in the community and encouraging students to ask each other for help. And finally, it’s important to offer joint majors where women can integrate subjects they feel confident in with STEM.’

GERLS CAMP

In line with Dr. Klawe’s insights, GERLS Camp was filled with real, hands-on activities, lots of encouragement to work collaboratively and to help each other, and the girls were allowed to bring their own interests into their projects. Many of the girls worked with the Gemma microcontroller, developed by STEM Innovator Limor Fried, to create wearable electronics that solved real problems they had like a hat that reminded them to put on sunblock or a purse that lit up on the inside when opened in a dark space.

Lora Hine adds, “Research shows that childhood interest in science, not performance in science, has been shown to be a greater predictor of choosing to concentrate in STEM as a career (Maltese and Tai, 2011).  The more we can do to positively influence a girl’s perception of what it means to ‘do’ science or to be a scientist, the more likely she will be to pursue science-related activities inside and outside of school time.”

The experience was great for the GERLS but also for the female mentors. Says Jennifer Westling, “I’d just like to show my appreciation to XRAISE and the Ithaca Generator for making these opportunities available, not just for the girls, but for women like myself, to share our passions with the next generation!”

To see more of our work encouraging Youth in STEM, come to the Maker Expo at Tompkins County Public Library on Saturday 23 August from 11am-1pm.

 

RELATED READING

GIRLS SCOUTS 2012 REPORT

http://www.girlscouts.org/research/pdf/generation_stem_full_report.pdf

2014 INTERVIEW WITH MARIA KLAWE

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/31/women-in-engineering_n_5631834.html

TOMPKINS COUNTY STEM INNOVATORS FEATURED IN THIS ARTICLE

http://www.lansingstar.com/business-archive/10102-women-entrepreneurs-on-the-cutting-edge

Xraise, Cornell University

http://www.classe.cornell.edu/Outreach/WebHome.html

 

MENTORS

Romy Fain – graduate researcher in the Nanophotonics group

http://nanophotonics.ece.cornell.edu/

Saramoira Shields AKA MathematiGal http://mathematigal.com/ Math major at Cornell, Research Assistant in a soft robotics Lab http://www.mae.cornell.edu/research/groups/shepherd/

Eva Luna – MS Biological and Environmental Engineering, assistant at the Engineering Teaching Excellence Institute at Cornell

https://www.linkedin.com/pub/eva-r-luna/19/269/b32

Jenn Colt – UX Designer at Cornell University Library and IG Board Member

www.linkedin.com/in/jenncoltdemaree

Xanthe Matychak – Professor of Strategic Communication at Ithaca College and IG Board Member

https://www.linkedin.com/pub/xanthe-matychak-mfa/57/1a5/37

Jennifer Westling – Computer Scientist and IG Member

www.linkedin.com/pub/jennifer-westling/19/32/645

Dr. Rebecca MacDonald – Swanson Director of Engineering Teams at Cornell Universiy http://www.engineering.cornell.edu/magazine/features/macdonaldqa.cfm

Lina Sanchez Botero – Graduate Student, Fiber Science Department, Cornell University

http://nanotextiles.human.cornell.edu/people.htm

Denise Lee – Coordinator of the Saturday Science and Mathematic Academy, Ithaca New York