For all that we hear about technology causing greater disconnection in society today, a growing movement of “makers” is offering a different twist on this narrative, instead using technology to unite people around making the world a better place.
Makers might be teachers, professionals, students, parents, DIY hobbyists or just tinkerers; whatever their professional background, makers share a personal fascination with creating, often using technology.
When you hear the term “maker,” you might think of self-made individuals like Elon Musk who taught himself computing at the age of 12 or Steve Jobs who created Apple in a garage. However, the maker movement believes that we are all makers. Today, more than 46% of Americans (135 million people) identify as being part of the maker community, both young and old.
This number is significant, given that only 16% of American high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in a STEM career. While that number is on the rise thanks to federal and state efforts to push for more STEM education, schools can learn a lot from the maker community, which has successfully used active learning (learning-by-doing) to attract students who have become disengaged by formal educational settings. In fact, numerous schools and community centers have started to convert communal spaces into active maker spaces to encourage exploration and experimentation with technology. Twenty-six percent of U.S. cities now have at least one maker space and more than 240 Maker Faires have taken place across the globe with more than 1 million makers in attendance.
At the heart of the maker movement is an ideology that innovation should be collaborative, fun and exploratory in nature. Building upon these principles, a new cadre of forward-thinking companies are launching EdTech toys specifically to teach these skill sets to inspire a new generation of innovators.
For instance, one company called Infento has developed the world’s first kit for families that lets them build real constructible rides together using simple modular parts. The building process is designed like a game, with the first task being the construction of a simple toolbox made out of cardboard that teaches children all of the different pieces. From there, a family would decide which ride they want to create and use online instructions to start building. Infento’s newest Kickstarter campaign now enables families to use only one kit and one hex key to create a huge range of rides, from walkers and scooters for toddlers all the way up to go-karts, skibocks and sledges for teens. The name Infento is a combination of two Latin words: “infinitus” (infinite) and “planto” (to make). When pronounced, the name sounds like “invent,” which is exactly whatInfento hopes families will be inspired to do with this collaborative experience.
Similarly, Nintendo released a modular kit called the Nintendo Labo that enables young people to create interactive gaming elements for the Switch out of cardboard. Options include a miniature piano, a fishing pole, a robot and even a motorbike. However, the best part of these accessories is that they help children to understand how these elements function. A third toy that has garnered much interest is the Makey Makey, a kit that teaches young people how to use alligator clips to add connectivity and conductivity to everyday objects like bananas and donuts to create music, touchpads, interactive maps and more. Makey Makey inspires children to come up with their own designs, all while teaching them basic principles of electrical engineering and coding.
Toys like these represent an important shift in thinking for the younger generations. Rather than being passive consumers of technology, young people will be active creators in designing the future. Organizations like the XPRIZE Foundation recognize the value of this outside-of-the-box thinking and have even begun incentivizing young people to put their innovation skills to the test. Most recently, the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE announced a challenge for students between the ages of 12 and 18 to “Design a Deep-Sea Treasure” that could be placed on the ocean floor to help map the final frontier on the earth. Winners can earn up to $2,000 cash and another $5,000 for their supporting school or organization.
While many parents are still wary about their children’s exposure to technology, they may be heartened to realize that some of the best technology is actually returning childhood to its roots of collaborative play and exploration. By reigniting the joy of learning and giving young people the tools to think, we are empowering them to change the world for the better—and to have some fun along the way.