Tuesday, September 14, 2010

DIY: The Science of Mistakes

There is a huge movement afoot: DIY. For those of you who haven't yet encountered Make magazine, you'll have to take my word for it. Do-It-Yourself is the new cool.

And Make magazine is the DIY aficionados handbook (and peer-reviewed journal, of sorts).

A big part of DIY culture is the permission to make mistakes and the ability to see the value in mistakes. Mark Frauenfelder, current editor of Make and founder of BoingBoing, states:
"You shouldn't equate mistakes with failure or punish yourself for them. Basically, in school, mistakes equal bad grades. So, the kind of conditioning in the real world is "I don't want to make mistakes because I'm going to be punished, so I'm going to avoid risk..." Just accept mistakes as something as a way to learn and get creative and come up with new ways to do things.

"Brain research has shown that the fastest way to learn something is by making a mistake. I think it gets really embedded in your brain when you make a mistake and you don't want to make that mistake again. You raise the bar and have new challenges and get better at what you are doing that way."

In the interview, Mark also talks about unschooling. He says,
"If a kid expresses an interest in making a kite or something, you can help them along the way. And the cool thing about something like that is if you make a kite, you learn geometry, you learn angles, you learn about the weather, you learn about materials, you learn about physics. So that kind of learning is based on projects, creating things, and it's a better way to learn. You know, I've always had that with learning computer programming languages. If you just take a course and try to learn a programming language, it's really hard to memorize something. But if you have a project, say you want to take measurements of a motor torque at different speeds or something, and you have to write a program to measure that, then you will learn that programming language just because you want to get something accomplished... [in unschooling] they have to learn a lot in order to get that thing done."

Some people may think I'm stretching things by equating DIY with science, but I believe that DIY actually is the basis of science. Science is not about textbooks. It's not even about lab demonstrations, although those can sometimes be interesting and can be the starting point for some great conversations and spin-off explorations. Science is about rolling up your sleeves and getting hands-on with whatever you want to find out about, whether that's wondering about how toasters work and taking apart an old one to find out (taking things apart is BIG science), or building your own retro crystal radio, or going down to the pond to hunt for tadpoles and dragonfly nymphs, or wanting to make things explode (controlled, of course!), or building a robot... or your own home-made banjo. And science is messy and can be filled with mistakes.

In fact... many important scientific discoveries were mistakes. For example, a scientist, trying out an hypothesis, had an experiment go wrong and discovered penicillin. From the PBS site:
"While researching the flu in the summer of 1928, Dr. Fleming noticed that some mold had contaminated a flu culture in one of his petri dishes. Instead of throwing out the ruined dish, he decided to examine the moldy sample more closely.

"Fleming had reaped the benefits of taking time to scrutinize contaminated samples before. In 1922, Fleming had accidentally shed one of his own tears into a bacteria sample and noticed that the spot where the tear had fallen was free of the bacteria that grew all around it. This discovery peaked his curiosity. After conducting some tests, he concluded that tears contain an antibiotic-like enzyme that could stave off minor bacterial growth.

"Six years later, the mold Fleming observed in his petri dish reminded him of this first experience with a contaminated sample. The area surrounding the mold growing in the dish was clear, which told Fleming that the mold was lethal to the potent staphylococcus bacteria in the dish. Later he noted, "But for the previous experience, I would have thrown the plate away, as many bacteriologists have done before."

"Instead, Fleming took the time to isolate the mold, eventually categorizing it as belonging to the genus penicillium. After many tests, Fleming realized that he had discovered a non-toxic antibiotic substance capable of killing many of the bacteria that cause minor and severe infections in humans and other animals. His work, which has saved countless lives, won him a Nobel Prize in 1945."

There are countless other examples of Mistakes that Worked.

So often, science is "taught" as a method or a series of steps that one must go through in order to achieve results. This is not science. This is the replication of other people's scientific discoveries. It can be valuable as a learning tool, definitely. And I'm a big fan of the scientific method for people who need to prove something to the rest of us. But if we want our kids to really experience science as a way to make sense of our world, we need to all get messy and be willing to make plenty of mistakes.

DIY is a great place to get our feet wet. You can start the journey here:

Make:technology on your time


Make for kids


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