How Doing Makes Us Smarter: Q&A with Dr. Stephen Uzzo

Stephen Uzzo, vice-president of science and technology at the New York Hall of Science, believes we are empowered as never before to be “the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things,” as author and digital rights activist Cory Doctorow wrote in his book Makers.

The “maker movement” is the 21st century do-it-yourself culture that finds its immediate roots in near mythical tech makers such as Wozniak, Jobs and Gates who seemingly launched a worldwide revolution from their garages. But there is also something timeless about making the personal and meaningful with our own hands, and minds. At our disposal today, says Dr. Uzzo, are unprecedented tools to be makers in our own right. More, our brains are built for it, and so should be our education system.

Hear more when Dr Uzzo appears as the Beacon Institute “Third Thursday” speakerJuly 16, 7 pm at the Institute’s Center for Environmental Innovation and Education (CEIE) located at 199 Denning’s Avenue in Beacon, NY. To register online, follow this link.

Portions of this interview appeared previously in the Poughkeepsie Journal.

John CroninCory Doctorow and others give the impression the maker movement is new and disruptive. I posed this to Adam Savage — a true maker in his own right — and he had a fascinating observation:

I don’t view the maker movement as disruptive or new. We used to have home economics, auto shop, woodworking and theater (all intrinsic to my early development) in most schools. These programs keep getting cut as school budgets get couched under the conservative rubric of ‘special interests.’ It’s all part of a devaluation of anything that smacks of blue collar in my opinion.

This rang true to me — the maker movement can also be viewed as a return to something once classical in American education.

Stephen Uzzo. Indeed, I think they are both right. We have been makers for millions of years. What has changed now is that the value of being empowered by creating personally meaningful things is more ubiquitous. Things like 3D printers allow exploration of new ways to create things that were once the domain of high volume factories. This is the way it disrupts existing product pipelines. In a country where, as you point out, we place this very high value on services where we once focused on manufacturing, what were once considered vocational crafts, have been recapitulated in a highly distributed way as personally meaningful expressions of creativity. On the other hand, many of the disruptive technologies like 3D printers and laser cutters are a hybrid of computer aided design with computer aided manufacturing, so the hands-on aspect of them is more virtual than physical. But these are one dimension of making, knitting is making as well.

Terry Platz. Brain imaging and other emerging computing technologies are showing compelling evidence that hands-on learning allows for deeper understanding of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). With our nation’s concerns about keeping pace with the world’s workforce of STEM-related fields, what is the potential for the maker movement to replace the current model for learning in schools?

SU. Although we know, that the brain is shaped through our experience, when it comes to sorting through incremental impacts of specific activities, such as making, we can’t just point to a spot on an MRI brain image and say, “there is that bit of learning.” Instead we have come to realize that thinking consists of a series of very complex networks of activity that affect many parts of the brain. Learning has many shapes and is more like a little society of creatures that interact in certain ways, and when we add to this how the nervous system interacts with the environment, we have a very big messy system.

Simply put, we know making and learning are intimately linked, and have been for a million years of human history, but knowing very specific effects on the brain will still take some time. As far as replacing the current models for learning used in schools, which is certainly needed, I think making is one important dimension. But the new model for education must emerge from understanding how people learn, both through understanding the brain and how we interact with our environment and each other. We have a long way to go for this, but the increased interest in how the brain works and how making affects learning are very important first steps.

TP. Were the maker movement and other high-tech play revolving around hands-on learning to become the foundation of how we teach children in our schools, is it conceivable that a whole population of geniuses might emerge from those who had floundered with traditional academics?

SU. There is a danger in drawing conclusions prematurely about the human dream of achieving a quick pathway to genius. Although a number of companies are profiting from the public’s desire to be smarter, the genius is in how as a species we survived after being cast out of the trees into a treeless savannah filled with hungry predators a few million years ago. We survived through wit and cooperation, mainly, as social beings: together we are geniuses as a species.

We have to recognize that it is this “crowd genius” that has allowed us to create and amass the important culture we have developed as human beings. What we CAN do is recognize that we know how to learn, but have just been looking for it in the wrong places. Schools are remarkable in that they are the only place where a group of different people spend hours together in the same room. The potential for ideas to emerge in group learning is missed because we forbid the very kind of social interaction in schools that leads to the kind of group genius I just mentioned. We can and must re-imagine schools as places for intense social interaction, innovation and creativity, and give up on the notion that we can characterize the complexity and dynamics of human learning through a number or letter.

JC. The maker movement has its strongest emphasis in the technological. But we “make” other things, of course: law and policy, for example. How does the movement apply to this non-tech side of education, especially given the increasingly important nexus of tech and policy?

SU. This will be the essence of my talk. The ability for humans to innovate in the cognitive niche takes many forms and results in the evolution of culture, and material culture is only one aspect of it. Everything we are as a species is an outgrowth of how we evolve human culture.