Actions speak louder

‘This is how we do’ sings Katy Perry on her album Prism. Despite the light-splitting album title, she’s probably not singing about physics or engineering. But she could be. Actions speak louder than words and, for millenials used to instant gratification via technology, the time to get started was five minutes ago.
‘Thinking is easy but acting is what really changes what is happening in the world’ pronounces Stanford lecturer Glenn Katz at the beginning of a tour of the Autodesk head office gallery in San Francisco.
Getting real
This bias towards action is the catalyst for the many wonderful and inspiring projects on display in the gallery. Take Soccket, a football that harnesses the kinetic energy of a kick inside an ingeniously hidden battery pack. Charge it up enough and you’ve got the energy to power a reading light, or a phone. Or the Embrace Nest, a soft baby-sized cocoon that is a low-cost warmer helping prevent premature babies from dying of hypothermia. These are real world projects. And they can create real differences.
image003Across the Embarcadero on Pier 9 is Autodesk’s new maker workshop, a wonderful light-filled space on the Bay that is inspiration itself. 3D printers whirr, water jets blast perfectly-positioned holes in metals, while upstairs the Instructables team upload new projects to the open-source website. User-generated ideas range from laser-engraved meringues to Egyptian-inspired metal jewellery. The motto is if you can think it, you can make it.
Pin down multi-taskers
Maker projects force collaboration. Add some coding and you’ve got a magic combination that strikes a chord with kids.
‘Engineering robotics is my favourite class of the day,’ says Alex Scherotter, a 12-year-old from northern California also on the Autodesk tour. ‘We’re making a paper plate speaker. It works by increasing or decreasing the magnetic field that moves a copper foil back and forth,’ he explains confidently. ‘We dissected a real speaker to see how it works.’
The 6th-grade class has also been experimenting with Lego NXT robotics in a competition to find innovative solution to problems like clearing flood-damaged areas.
‘We programmed the robot to do a bunch of tasks like rescue a person from a house and put up a floodgate,’ says Alex’s classmate Kat Radtke, speaking unselfconsciously into the iPhone microphone.
Dillan Ross, another 6th grade girl, is keen on the coding element of the class. ‘We did the Hour of Code with and we do Khan Academy. I’ve done Javascript too. I managed to create a ball on the screen that you could control.
‘I like the new experiences,’ she adds. ‘We learn abut new stuff that’s not normally in school, like 3D printing.’
‘What I really love about this class is that the teachers love new ideas,’ chips in Alex. ‘I learned you could make something on Minecraft and then 3D print it. I designed something on the server and now the kids are using it and they are so psyched.’
The enthusiasm is infectious and indicative of a new learning style that Glenn Katz promotes. ‘Kids learn better from each other than they do from us,’ he says, describing how the job of teachers is shifting to being a facilitator instead of a gatekeeper, giving students careful guidance so they don’t ‘burn out of control’.
Screen saver
image005The fact is, today’s kids have so much information at their disposal, there’s no getting stuck on a problem. Answers are at the simple touch of a screen. Most excitingly, the person answering that call to action could be anywhere on the planet.
‘Wherever you go in the world where you have mobile devices you can connect with things that are happening,’ says Katz, waving his iPhone in the air. ‘There is more power in this phone than the computers that helped us land on the Moon.’
A hush falls on the room. The teachers, kids, and enthusiastic parents in the room are busy. Actively thinking of what they are going to make next.

Claire Comins is the organiser of Codemaker Club tech camps launching this summer in California
Follow her on twitter @clairecomins

Autodesk education links: and
Embrace Nest