The Kindness of Strangers

RennsteigStripperI was not raised to rely on the kindness of strangers but when it comes around it can make your day – for a week.  That’s what happened in January when I needed a new blade for my prized wire stripper. Yes, this is a sentimental story about a wire stripper – perhaps the first of its kind.

The central character is the Rennsteig MultiStrip 10. It is the most expensive tool I own and is worth every dime. It saved my hand from a painful repetitive motion injury but after cutting thousands of wires the blade began to dull and I was crushed when I couldn’t find a replacement.

The tool is made in Germany so I contacted Mirko Reffke, Rennsteig’s VP in the US, with low expectations that a small business like mine would catch his attention. I was surprised by his quick reply that he’d try to help but bigger surprises were yet to come.

Two days later there was a knock on my door by a lovely, smiling woman with her three year old son. She introduced GiftfromRennsteig
herself as Feven from Rennsteig tools and handed me a box with a brand new wire stripper and two replacement blades. Feven is the Rennsteig’s regional Customer Service Rep and as it turns out, lives about two miles from my house.  You would of thought I’d won the lottery because that’s exactly how I felt.

Better yet, their timing was perfect I had just received a shipment of tiny vibration motors and EandBrushbotneeded to try them out. Three year old “E” is a born GadgetHead and was glad to help.  He quickly turned that motor into a tiny brushbot robot and I spent the rest of the day in the glow of so much kindness. But they weren’t done.

After perusing my website, Mirko offered to have Rennsteig underwrite a scholarship for a girl to attend a week of Gadget Girl summer camp here at the Lab. This kindness of strangers has left me smiling for over a month now, and the best part of all is they are no longer strangers.

Wired for Wiring

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A Gadget Gab discussion about the dearth of women in technology and how we can change that

 

Wired for Wiring

“Maddy you’re a genius!”

“I’m sorry. You’re just not wired for wiring.”

 

SmallGirlTeckIStockWhat a difference a couple of generations can make.   The first statement was about Maddy, the only girl in my GadgetHeads summer camp for 8-10 year olds.  And yes, Maddy is a genius.  The fourboys in the camp were cheering over her ability to find and extract hidden circuit boards from discarded appliances. Everything Maddy made that week was both beautiful, functional and worthy of the admiration she received from her fellow campers.

The second statement was directed at me in my former workplace.  A senior engineer was connecting a traffic simulator to my test machine and handed me a cable.  I thought he wanted me to hold it while he connected the other end.  In fact, he was expecting me to plug it in.  When I didn’t, he took it from me and gently explained that I “just wasn’t wired for wiring” and that it happened to me at adolescence.

I explained that I didn’t know he wanted me to plug it in but he suddenly became deaf.  He also showed no interest in talking about the role of gender bias in child rearing, in education and in the workplace.  Since he was nearing retirement I shrugged it off as a point of view that would retire with him.  I didn’t realize how wrong I was to dismiss it as an outdated anomaly and to not pursue it with management.

Because when I did mention it to my boss about a year later, I learned that I was supposed to be learning to setup the hardware so I could take on more of that responsibility myself.  Apparently, I failed a test that I wasn’t aware I was taking and that I could have easily passed if I had been more assertive and if my examiner hadn’t been a dinosaur.

More importantly, I’m learning gender bias has not retired but has continued to thrive in an industry that offers some of the best wages and opportunities for advancement and entrepreneurship. And this is a problem.

Not that you didn’t already know that but I think the topic is worth yet another discussion.  This post is the first of what will be an ongoing Gadget Gab Series called “Venus the GearHead”.  All posts in the series will open for comment and I hope will feature guest essays from both those who have excelled in technology and those who find it intimidating and/or unwelcoming. And guys, that includes you.

If you have a story to share or would like to express your input in a guest post, please contact me at: Karen@GadgetLab.org.  My guidelines are that full names not be used, stories told as true must actually be true and the tone must be productive.  And yeah, I just called someone a dinosaur.  Sorry.

MotorHead

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(My sassy daughter made this meme about me.)

My love of motors is a running joke in the family.  Just last week I pulled a lipstick out of my handbag which actually turned out to be a small DC motor.

But motors are more than lipstick impersonators. If you’ve seen the latest Mad Max, you know that mastery of motors will be required for survival in the upcoming dystopia.

You’ll need a motor for pumping water from deep within in the ground. And you’ll need a motor for running the retractable saws that puncture tires and create other mayhem. That was the best part of the movie for me. The Gadgets.

madMaxCar
www.cbsnews.com/pictures/the-cars-of-mad-max-fury-road/24/

The water system, hydroponic farm and outlandish vehicles made from old cars and discarded junk were like landfill come to life. A land of the living dead but zombie appliances instead of zombie humans. I’m not suggesting that success in the future means survival in a desert wasteland. But I’m convinced it will require original thinking and resourcefulness. A working knowledge of  motors won’t hurt. Combine that with some engine smarts and you could be Mad Max’s next boss.

Salad Days at Gadget Lab

Salad Days at Gadget Lab
MI’ll just be out with it. Gadget Lab is in my basement. Not the dungeon kind with tiny windows and crickets gone wild. It’s a walk-in basement that has been pretty quiet since my kids moved out, an unused resource waiting for a new purpose. That’s how I see it anyway.

I know to some it may seem unprofessional. I see it as part of the new economy, like Uber, Airbnb and other services that make reuse of an existing asset. It has allowed me to embark on a new business with minimal investment and to keep costs affordable to the local community.

But more importantly, it allows me to run a computer summer camp that offers more than chair time in front of a screen. There’s a back patio where we break for popcorn and popsicles and where the potted plants work off a drip irrigation system that offers useful analogies for how electricity works. At my inaugural camp, the kids made a cooling system out of irrigation tubing, misters and drippers. It was a spontaneous project that provided hands on fun and cool mist in the face. Not all gadgets have batteries.

The flower and vegetable gardens serve as an extension of the lab. Last summer I had a camper who was not so interested in circuitry but he enjoyed wandering through the yard and could identify most of the plants. He was a talented naturalist was more interested in making a salad from the vegetable garden than in robots.

Someday Gadget Lab may outgrow the basement but if it doesn’t, I’m happy to stay put. A home based camp might not offer the most impressive facility but I’m guessing that Gadget Lab is the first technology camp to come with a free cucumber.

The Other Side of Frustration

AndrewFrustrationBlog“Let me know if you need my help and I hope a few things go wrong.”  Those were my words to Adam, an eleven year old Gadget Lab student who is building his own PC.  He bought compatible parts through a website that matches PC components that assemble  together seamlessly but… I hope they don’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to drum up business. I’d like Adam to hit a few snags because when the process gets frustrating, that’s when the real learning begins.  I learned this in grad school when I took economics for the first time.

Macroeconomics turned out to be as hard as it sounds. I was in over my head and I was certain I would fail. So for the first time in my life, I read every assignment and completed each exercise in the workbook.  Halfway through the course, I encountered two workbook problems that were simply unsolvable. I worked them backwards, forwards, sideways and cried just a little.  Still, my solutions never matched the answers in the back of the book.

I gave in and asked the professor for help.  He took a quick look and said, “Oh yeah, those answers are wrong. A couple grad students made that workbook.”

I was furious. Furious about the hours I had wasted and even more furious at his lack of regret. I went home steaming and once again, cried just a little.  But when I calmed down, I realized that I had actually mastered the concepts in those two problems more completely than anything else in the course.

Thinking about it from all sides, rereading the material, and checking my calculations clarified my understanding of the material and even the material in other chapters. More importantly, I realized that I could manage this course and that I actually like Macroeconomics.  In fact, once I stopped crying I ended up loving all my econ classes.

And that’s why I hope those PC components give Adam a little trouble.  I hope he has to do some research on firmware, drivers and other aspects of home computers that are invisible to most users.  And I hope he finds his answers by using the wealth of information that other computer enthusiasts are happy to share online. If he does, this skill will serve him better than anything else he learns building this PC.  Because the euphoria of discovery doesn’t come when the pieces just snap into place. It comes on the other side of frustration. That’s where the miracles happen.

Career Day

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“This is great! We need more engineers! We need more computer programmers!” People often assume that I started Gadget Lab to encourage the study of computers and engineering and for good reason. The series of GadgetHead workshops offers the equivalent of a mini degree in electronics, software and mechanical engineering.

But my goal isn’t to steer anyone toward a career in anything. My goal is to create teachers, artists, writers, engineers, plumbers and coders who know how things work and who feel empowered to create and upload instead of just consuming and downloading.

Maybe that’s why I don’t regret my liberal arts background. It gave me the tools to write this post. And I don’t regret that I coached soccer instead of leaning in. That experience taught me crowd control and how to communicate.

Likewise, I hope Gadget Lab will be part of a student’s broader experience and will contribute to careers that I haven’t even imagined. But among the skills required for future success I think the most important will be the willingness to learn something that seems hard at first, to work with tools that don’t plug and play and to try to understand how things work from the bottom up. These are the skills and traits that will serve our future workforce.

I don’t know exactly what careers will available to today’s children. Already computers can write both software code and informative prose. They can check out our groceries and perform delicate surgery. Technology has automated and simplified tasks that once required great skill. But what I do know is that no one will pay our kids to do something easy. So acquiring the persistence to pursue something complex, to be the creator of that plug and play technology, that brilliant essay or that soaring aria, that’s where the future lies. I hope Gadget Lab will help develop both the personal traits and the skills that our kids will need to create that future.

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A year ago, when I created Gadget Lab, I thought I was creating a community where kids and adults could learn the skills to create their own gadgetry.  During that year, I came to realize that the creative process requires more than skills, it requires stamina and inspiration hopefully mixed with a large dose of joy. Finding the balance between developing persistence while keeping it fun is a journey that I expect will keep taking me to new places and to new discoveries.  I plan to document them here.  I hope you’ll join me.

About Gadget Gab

HandsPiI was inspired to start Gadget Lab when my friend David told me I needed a Raspberry Pi. Yes, “Pi”. I spelled that correctly and there was no fruit, no crust and definitely no crumbs. The Raspberry Pi is a miniature computer that’s about the size of an Altoids tin. It can be used with a mouse, keyboard and monitor like a regular PC and can run office tools, games and a lot of really cool stuff.

I was enchanted by the size of the Raspberry Pi and by its possibilities but found the setup to be pretty complicated – more complicated than I thought most kids could handle without a gadgety parent in the home. So I decided I would try to fill that role and would send kids soaring once they got a Raspberry Pi up and running. The only problem is, I was wrong. So terribly wrong.

Because the really cool thing about the Raspberry Pi isn’t the $35 price tag or its tiny size. The cool thing is that access to the input and output pins that work with sensors, motors, motion detectors and all manner of things that involve “physical computing”, that is using computer code to make something happen in the physical world. I failed to grasp that the first time around and no one showed any interest in pursuing or even owning a Pi. So I took a step back and changed it all around. RPIGPIOI decided to create a more general series of hands on workshops that build on and complement each other and that lead to an understanding of electronics, computing and mechanical principles.

I still use the Raspberry Pi at the Lab and still think it’s the coolest thing since jelly beans but I keep finding myself revising and reinventing what I teach as my vision clarifies and I learn from watching the kids – and a few adults- who undertake this amazing Do It Yourself journey with me.

This blog, Gadget Gab, is where I’ll post my observations, share links and chronicle what I learn. I have a million posts rattling around my brain, I can’t wait to let them out.

Life on Mars, a Peep into the Future

The kids of Gadget Lab have been busy.  In just a few weeks they designed and created a Smart House for Peeps living on Mars.  Their diorama is called, “Life on Mars: A Peep into the Future”.

There’s grocery delivery by robotic truck.  There is also a working elevator, a ceiling fan, a street light, an electric toothbrush and a fish that swims.  Below is a media presentation made by a student.

The kids worked hard on this house and I was thrilled by how well they operated as a team and without drama or unseemly behavior.  We were housebound due to the snow and worked crowded conditions but that didn’t damper their energy or their enthusiasm for the project.  I could not have been more proud of their work ethic or of the results.