Learning through making and doing is important, but so is teaching our students to make a difference in the lives of others. In the maker world, it’s not enough to just make “stuff,” we need to teach students the importance of making things that matter.
As part of our three-level STEAM sequence of courses, I teach a Physical Computing/Wearables class, in which students learn electronics and how to program Arduinos. Both of these things are difficult and can be glitchy, even more so when combined. Students learn resilience and grit, as we repeatedly troubleshoot their creations.
Adapted toys, made specifically for those with disabilities, can cost hundreds of dollars more than a regular toy. The remote control buttons on ordinary toys are too small or difficult for this population to manipulate, but a regular toy can be “hacked” to make it adaptive by opening it up and bypassing the switch. You can easily make an adaptive button, which can cost $65 for a simple big button, with cardboard, tin foil, and tape. My students had learned to solder and were figuring out electronic circuit boards. This was the perfect challenge.
First, I took several students to a Toy Hacking Workshop at Adaptive Design Association in New York City. Led by the folks at DIYability, my students and I learned the basics of taking a toy apart and making it adaptive. The good news is that they have made all their guides open source, so anyone can try this. Everything is in this guide, from what toys are possible to hack, to the tools and materials you will need to do it. And if you don’t want to source all the materials yourself, they have a kit you can purchase. It looks overwhelming at first, but if you follow their step by step guide, complete with pictures, you can easily adapt a remote-controlled toy. After spending a Sunday morning at ADA, my students were excited to teach their classmates and hack more toys.
Students teaching students is a powerful methodology.
Back in the classroom, I stepped back and asked them to lead the class. Although overwhelmed a bit at first, they rose to the challenge and walked everyone through a demonstration. Then everyone got to work on the toys we had purchased. There were problems along the way: soldering joints that didn’t stick (we learned to reinforce these with electrical tape); circuit boards that were difficult to solder to (we bypassed them); and 3.5 mm mono jacks that didn’t look like the ones we’d used in the workshop (we Googled them). All of the troubleshooting led to more learning.
I contacted a local organization before we began the toy hacking to find out if they were interested and what toys we should purchase. Working with one of their speech pathologists, we identified and purchased several toys on the hackable list. When we finished our toy hack, we invited the organization to come to school to accept the toys and talk about how they would be used with their population. Two speech pathologists came to school, bringing with them one of the residents from their group home. The joy was evident the moment Rima saw the toys! She played with all of them, making drawings with the remote control drawing toy and blowing bubbles with the motorized bubble machine. That quickly became her favorite and she didn’t want to let go of it. My students were excited to see how happy the toys made Rima. In one student’s words, “It was so easy for us to do and it brought her so much joy!” They also all agreed that it was a great way to learn more about circuits and electronics.
There are many opportunities to use design to make things for people with needs that are different from our own. Toy hacking is just the beginning. Look around your own community. Perhaps your students can design an adaptive device for a grandparent with rheumatoid arthritis or a sibling with a physical disability. Working with someone whose needs are different than their own helps students understand others’ perspectives.
And designing and making something to help grows their sense of agency, empowering them to look for opportunities in the world where they can make a difference.
For breakfast, I had refrigerator oatmeal: oatmeal mixed with some figs and almonds and almond milk, then left overnight in the fridge. That and some English breakfast tea!