Serendipitous Making

School libraries have proven effective in impacting student achievement in reading and writing.  However, evidence is lacking for what they contribute to student achievement in STEM content areas.  Creating makerspaces is undoubtedly one powerful way to bridge that gap.  In my library, thanks to our makerspace, there is a growing culture of inquiry and innovation in STEM concepts.  In a previous post, I wrote about the power of informal learning in relation to the sucess of our makerspace.  It is my belief, that the serendipitous, non-systematic approach to the structure of our makerspace has led to opportunities for students gaining deeper knowledge by furthering student interest and engagement in STEM subjects.  A powerful example of this occurred just the other day.  

A new theme for my makerspace this year is Brain-Computer Interface Technology. Sound scary?  Could be!  It is not a topic I knew much about, but it is a cutting-edge technology I thought my students and I would have fun exploring it together. Boy, was I right!  Our entry point into this theme was through brainwave cat ears, created by a company called Necomimi.  

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In my makerspace, I simply put out several pairs of cat ears along with some instructions for how to get started.

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Yes, of course, just putting on the cat ears was silly and caused many of us to laugh.  

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But through the laughter and silliness, and I would even be willing to say that BECAUSE of the laughter and silliness, some amazing things began to emerge. Students began testing how these mind-controlled devices really worked and they began to understand how hey could communicate through just brainwaves.  The movement of the cat ears showed how interested or relaxed the students were in real-time.  They discovered that through this technology, emotions and feelings became transparent and people around them could see what was really on their mind through the wiggle of the cat ears.  If students were focused, their cat ears perked up, if they were relaxed their ears would drop down, and so on.  

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Achieving these states, particularly for high schoolers, required a high level of mind control and concentration.  Students began to try various activities out to help them achieve each state.  For example, a group of students did homework intensely to achieve the high alert state and have their cat ears stick straight up. Others used their personal devices to play head-to-head games that were high intensity.  At the same time, we had students doing yoga and meditating to achieve states of relaxation, causing their cat ears to drop down.  Using only two light-touch sensors on their forehead and ear, students were literally in awe of how they could control a machine with just their mind.  Many literally gasped out loud when their cat ears moved and responded to their emotions.

Following these experiences, several students elected to wear the cat ears to their classes and discovered through this that their cat ears reflected their level of engagement with their teacher and work.  They appreciated the transparency the device allowed.  At the end of the school day, a few of the students asked to take their cat ears home.  It was the freedom to play at home that took their discoveries even further.  Families became involved in experimenting and testing with how mental states translated into the ear movements.  Students even used their personal devices to video themselves sleeping throughout the night, and monitored the ear movements throughout their sleep cycles.  

The next day, an enthusiastic student shared with me his own idea for this type of brainwave technology.  His sister is autistic and oftentimes the number one challenge he and his family have is finding a way for her to communicate her emotions.  His idea is to use this technology to develop a device for autistic children in which the device responds to what they are thinking and their emotions and communicates it to others.  As we know, students gain deeper knowledge by building tangible models as a way of testing their ideas and that is exactly what he is working on now.  On his own, he has put together a team of peers to help him do the necessary research and from there they will be developing a prototype.

The notion of serendipity is quickly becoming an important component in establishing a vibrant maker culture.  As creative producers, students can take an experimental path to solving problems or creating things with imposed curriculum or the pressure of satisfying someone else’s preconceived objectives, but is instead influenced by personal goals and interests.  It is those experiences that have proven to be the most valuable and profound.