As part of Digital Innovation Week 2016 Pollie Barden (@polliepi), Lecturer in Product Design, ran a ‘Makerspace: Light an LED with Pencil, Ink and Paper’ workshop which introduced participants to ways of making simple circuits out of paper, pencils and conductive ink. We decided to find out more about Pollie’s teaching practices both in the community and at Sussex. The interview is edited for brevity and clarity.
What does innovation mean to you?
When we hear innovation the stereotypical image that appears is the light bulb above the head, the eureka moment. As I talk with students I challenge that notion, invention doesn’t necessarily mean something huge.
Oftentimes what appears to be a huge leap is built off of lots of tiny changes, micro-inventions. We should be inspired by the term, not afraid of it. You should recognise that in your own life you’re constantly inventing, whether it’s figuring out how to carry your child and sippy cup and everything at the same time; or all of your books; or making sure your keyboard is where it needs to be, we’re always inventing on multiple levels and fixing things everyday.
Those lightbulb moments come from a lifetime of looking at all these different things, so nothing happens in isolation.
Could you describe what it is that you do in your workshops?
The main ethos behind the workshop is getting people to express themselves through creativity in whatever means fits them. I do focus on bringing some type of digital technology into the workshops. We use the term ‘smart’ device and we interpret that to mean they’re smarter than humans when really all that means is that they are smarter than they used to be. We are infinitely smarter than our digital devices, they run on algorithms and code built by humans so they have limitations.
In the workshops I focus on physical computing. Initially this sounds scary because people have visions of wires and things of that nature. That is the case when we are working with the Arduino, an open source platform for physical computing. However it was built with the intention of democratising the ability to take control of electronics, it’s very easy entry. We also look at Makey Makey and Scratch, a graphical coding programme.
We have done workshops where people make puppets that represent avatars on Scratch, connecting the physical and digital world. And then there’s Bare Conductive, conductive ink which is non-toxic and washable so it’s accessible from an application standpoint as children and adults can use it. In the workshop at Sussex that’s what we used to create circuits, it’s kind of bringing the new and old together and making it accessible.
What motivates you to do this?
Long before DIY became a popular term, my dad was someone who made projects around the house. In my youth when he had his weekends off I was annoyed because there was always a project for us to do.
However now I am infinitely grateful because I have all these skills which I didn’t realise were unique. Being female, the other interest is redefining roles. In the late 60s, early 70s there was a more balanced representation of women in computer work. When personal computers were introduced they were marketed towards boys. This led to an assumption that there was a baseline of knowledge regarding computers that had not been expected previously. Women typically did not have that baseline and that has contributed to the continuing divide between male and female engagement in developing digital tools. F
or me the idea behind these workshops is this idea of independence whether you’re six years old or 100 years old, if you have an idea or a problem you want to solve you have a way to start solving it yourself. The learning curve is no one is disabled, our environment creates learning barriers.
How does this affect your teaching practice at Sussex?
I come from a family of teachers. My teaching has always been influenced by making sure people feel valued and understanding that people learn differently. One of the reasons I run different kinds of workshops, the same as I introduce material in different ways in my teaching, is that really it’s a case of understanding how people process information.
The other part is bringing in these tools, conductive ink, graphite, pencil and paper and getting people to realise that constraints can be a creative benefit. It’s not about do I have the best sensor? It’s about what do I have around me and how can I make that work?
With my teaching it’s really about getting the students to understand the materials, here at Sussex I teach product design and the first thing that sparks in people’s minds isn’t the object but actually nowadays it’s an app, or the experience of purchase things, whether it’s online or physical, and how that space is designed.
In that way it’s getting students to challenge their thoughts. Being able to use these DIY tools allows them to mock up quick solutions without having to worry about actual programming and things of that nature to get their ideas across and test their ideas. That’s how the DIY thing then translates into a formal teaching practice.
How does this approach affect the student experience?
The intention is that the students are able to be more engaged. Again it is getting back to the cascading idea of teaching and learning, so by having this range of tools that go from very low-fi paper to physical computing to even getting into app development, it allows anyone multiple the entry points to explore an idea.
It allows someone who is very keen at coding and wants to code an app to go ahead and do that and explore that, and someone else can tackle the problem in a different way and be successful and both learn the necessary things. Whereas if I dictated and said ‘everyone has to learn coding’ that may be favoring a certain type of learning and a certain expertise.
From the feedback, I’ve got over the years it’s been something that the students have been very positive about. Because it’s not a black or white issue it allows people to explore the more interesting and varied grey areas, to find where they fit and that’s in keeping with the way the workforce is changing today. This builds off of IDEO’s concept of ‘T shaped people’, the idea that people have an in depth knowledge of one area and a broad range of knowledge across a variety of topics which helps feed into their expertise and allows connections to happen to develop interdisciplinary teams for agile development.
If you would like to book a place on any of the remaining sessions during Digital Innovation Week, including Spherical Photography and At Home at University? ‘Constructing campus as home with Wikimedia’, visit www.sussex.ac.uk/library/about/projects/diwsussex.