A trip to Washington, D.C., to represent the University of Wyoming at the 2016 National Maker Faire this summer yielded the expected opportunities to spotlight UW’s emerging work in the movement for College of Education faculty member Tonia Dousay, along with a couple of surprising twists – including an invitation from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Dousay and chemical engineering graduate student Audra DeStefano demonstrated the project “Full STEAM Ahead: Painting with Programming” at the National Maker Faire. That project uses Sphero robots and finger paints to create artistic images. The UW table drew wide interest and participation from teachers, parents, children and others attending the event. It also earned two Make: Magazine Editor’s Choice Awards.
“They loved seeing that it was STEAM (science, technology, art, and mathematics) instead of just STEM,” she says of the editors’ feedback. “They loved that we could talk with both parents and educators – and even the kids – about what they were doing, why they were doing it, how they were having fun but they were learning something at the same time.”
UW’s popular project also drew the attention of a camera crew from covering the event and shooting promotional materials for the second season of “America’s Greatest Makers,” a TBS competitive reality show highlighting the maker movement. The crew was so taken by the Wyoming activity – and Dousay’s enthusiasm – that it filmed both an interview and footage of the robotics painting activity.
Besides offering thoughts on a variety of maker movement topics, Dousay also recorded a brief statement, “I am a maker,” for use in show promos. A simple sentence, it had profound impacts for the assistant professor and WyoMakers director.
“It’s like I gave myself permission to finally admit that,” she recalls of that pivotal moment. “We look at titles like ‘I am a maker’ and we assume that I have to meet special criteria to earn that title.” But that isn’t true, she says.
“Most of us are makers. Most of us are engaged in some sort of making activity…Until I had to look, literally down the barrel of a camera, and say ‘I am a maker,’ the gravity of that statement hadn’t hit me.”
While at the National Maker Faire, Dousay received an email invitation to attend a stakeholder engagement meeting from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Dousay was invited to represent UW, a member of the Make Schools Alliance. The Alliance is an online community bringing together 48 higher education institutions committed to advancing the maker movement.
“I remember looking at the presidential seal at the top of the email and thinking ‘This isn’t happening. This isn’t real, right?’” Dousay recalls.
The invitation was real. With the support of family and colleagues, Tonia extended her Washington stay to participate in the White House event. During the 3 ½-hour meeting, participants shared examples of making in different settings. They shared common concerns and began to explore ways to work together to advance common goals advancing the maker movement, in schools and elsewhere.
Discussions were rich and wide-ranging, thanks to a mix of disciplinary backgrounds (e.g., engineering, physics, college admissions, private industry). Dousay was the lone teacher educator in the room, a status that concerned her.
“If we are not careful, we will lose this, and we won’t be invited to the table,” she says of the need to have teacher educators involved in national-level discussions. “We can’t let that happen.”
“We can bring a very powerful voice to the table that ensures sustainability of a movement and that ensures that the teachers that we are preparing are equipped to move forward in this area.”
Aside from new connections made and common ground identified, Dousay left the meeting with a sense of optimism and affirmation.
“You begin to realize that there is something to this movement, it isn’t just a passing phase,” she says. “This is a shift in the way we are looking at education and interdisciplinary education at that.”
She also left with a heaping list of ideas and follow-up tasks, as inspiration flowed throughout the meeting. For example, one discussion reminded her of a UW social studies education major’s love of music and his work as a disc jockey, a form of making music. What if that student could create a workshop showing others how to become DJs, Dousay wondered. A quick text to that student led to a plan for that student to offer a “mini-rave” on campus offering that opportunity.
Hearing Matt McGann, MIT admissions director, discuss how that institution uses e-portfolios to identify promising students who may not rise to the top via traditional evaluation tools. That prompted an exchange leading to the beginning of an exploration of how to use e-portfolios across a student’s academic life – from K-12 through college and into the post-graduation job search – to demonstrate sustained learning and increased proficiency.
The renewed enthusiasm that the D.C. trip will come in handy as Dousay moves forward on planning for several campus projects. Among the initiatives on her docket are planning monthly maker workshops, supporting mechanical engineering students working on projects for a NASA competition, working with girls from the Arapaho Tribe to explore ways to use technology to preserve their culture, collaborating with a colleague in the Department of Family and Consumer Science to offer a second printmaking elective for UW Lab School students, and laying the groundwork for launching a Laramie Mini-Maker Faire.