SparkTruck: A “Bookmobile” That Brings Rapid Prototyping to School Kids

The truck has two 3D printers, a laser cutter, sewing machines, and a clay oven—and it is meant to foster a new generation of makers.

Somewhere between grade school and junior high, we stop making things. Popsicle sticks, Elmers glue and construction paper are abandoned, and learning becomes about ingesting as much information as possible and regurgitating it on the right lines of a test. We need to learn our long division, of course, but can we continue with creativity along the way?

SparkTruck is like a bookmobile for makers. Funded by Kickstarters and staffed by students from Stanford, it’s covering 13,000 miles over the next six weeks to bring creative crafting to kids around the US. And whereas most schools are fighting for funding for core materials like paper and pencils, SparkTruck is loaded to the brim with rapid prototyping equipment used by engineering and design houses.

The ‘high-tech’ tools we have in the truck are a laser cutter, two 3-D printers, a vinyl cutter, sewing machines and a clay oven. We also have a wide assortment of ‘low tech’ tools such as hammers, scissors, hot glue guns, tape, and various craft supplies,” explains coordinator Jason Chua. “We use these tools in tandem with one another–the high-tech tools like the laser cutter and vinyl cutter get people excited and allow them to create more durable final products and low-tech tools allow for more freedom of expression and hands on tinkering.

Rapid prototyping isn’t just a go-to of professionals; it’s the perfect complement to a child’s attention span. Theoretical designs can be fulfilled in near-instantaneous gratification. And if you think about it, the raw materials that go into 3-D printers and such devices are relatively inexpensive–they’re designed to be run for a very low cost–making them, again, a great fit for the tight budgets of the education system.

As for SparkTruck, they’re mostly focusing on that developmental pocket before high school, to excite kids before they stifle creativity underneath some of the most awkward, self-conscious years of their lives.

Our favorite age range to work with is 7-13 years old, because this is the range when opportunities to create and explore in school diminish, and pressure to conform and fit into standardized systems and tests increases,” writes Chua. “We want to make sure that fun, open-ended opportunities are made available to kids as they move through school and life because this is what helps kids get over their fear of failure and grow confidence in their abilities to be creative and work through tough problems.

In the wake of ACTs and AP classes, shop class developed a blue collar stigma. What a shame. As if the researchers at our top colleges are hiring Jiffy Lube part-timers to code their firmware, solder junctions, negotiate radio signals and tweak electromagnets.

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Why Great Ideas Get Rejected

Have you ever debuted an exciting new idea to the world only to receive a lukewarm or even highly critical response? Well, get used to it. Mounting evidence shows that we all possess an inherent bias against creativity. The good news is there’s something we can do about it.

On May 29, 1913 in Paris, Igor Stravinsky debuted perhaps his greatest work, The Rite of Spring ballet. Up until that point, most ballets were graceful and elegant, full of traditional music. Rite was different. Stravinsky had written intentionally inharmonic notes and arranged around pagan themes.

Within minutes of the show’s start, the audience began to boo the performers. Supporters rallied against the discontented audience members, and the show quickly degenerated into an all-out riot. Before the first intermission arrived, police had to intervene to calm the raging crowd. During the second half of the performance, riots broke out again. Surprised by the reaction, Stravinsky fled the theater before the show even ended.

Of course, history would vindicate Stravinsky. The Rite of Spring is now regarded as a milestone in the history of ballet and musical composition. Yet, even this legendary idea was initially rejected, which likely came as quite a shock to Stravinsky after he spent years crafting and refining the piece.

Similar rejections can leave us wondering what we did wrong or why others just couldn’t appreciate our creative idea. Fortunately, recent research in human psychology is finally shedding some light on how our brains accept (or reject) new ideas.

Creativity requires an element of novelty.

For a work to be truly creative, it has to depart from the status quo at some point. That departure makes many people uncomfortable. Despite our oft-stated desire for more creativity, we also hold a stronger desire for certainty and structure. When that certainty is challenged, a bias against creativity develops.

This bias was first discovered in two studies by researchers from Cornell, Penn and the University of North Carolina. The research team, led by Penn’s Jennifer Mueller, studied our perceptions about creative ideas when faced with uncertainty. In the first study, the team divided participants into two groups and created a small level of uncertainty in one group, telling them they would be eligible for additional payment based on a random lottery.

For a work to be truly creative, it has to depart from the status quo at some point. That departure makes many people uncomfortable.

The participants were then given a series of tests. The first test presented pairs of words on a computer to the participants and asked them to select their preferred pairing. The pairings shown always came from two groups: creative versus practical (novel, original, functional, useful) or good versus bad (sunshine, peace, ugly, vomit). In each round, participants would chose their preference between pairs like “novel vomit” or “useful peace.” The test, known as an “Implicit Associations Test” uses the speed of participants’ reaction time to measure the strength of their mental associations.

The second test was more overt; it measured participants’ explicit perceptions of creativity by asking them to rate their attitudes toward creativity and practicality on a seven-point scale (from strongly negative to strongly positive). When the researchers calculated the results from both groups, they found that the baseline group (the one given no chance at extra compensation) held both implicit and explicit associations between creativity and practicality. The uncertainty group, however, was different. This group held an explicitly positive association between the two, but implicitly their minds separated creative from practical. In other words, they had an implicit bias against creativity relative to usefulness.

Novelty provokes uncertainty.

If this bias is present in most people during periods of uncertainty, then it could well explain why society has a history of rejecting its greatest innovations. To test this thesis, the research team returned to the lab and this time studied a new group of participants’ ability to judge a creative product idea. The participants were again divided into two groups – this time into groups with a high tolerance or a low tolerance for uncertainty.

The high tolerance group was primed by being asked to write an essay supporting the idea that multiple solutions existed for every problem. The low tolerance group was primed by writing an essay arguing the opposite. Both groups were given the same implicit and explicit associations tests and then asked to rate a creative idea for a new product, a running shoe that automatically adjusted its fabric thickness to cool the foot in hot conditions. As anticipated by the first study, the low uncertainty tolerance group showed the same implicit bias against creativity and was more likely to rate the running shoe idea poorly.

Mueller’s results have powerful implications as we think about how to “sell” our own ideas. We now know that regardless of how open-minded people are, or claim to be, they experience a subtle bias against creative ideas when faced with uncertain situations. This isn’t merely a preference for the familiar or a desire to maintain the status quo. Most of us sincerely claim that we want the positive changes creativity provides. What the bias affects is our ability to recognize the creative ideas that we claim we desire. Thus, when you’re pitching your creative idea, it may not be the idea itself that is being rejected. The more likely culprit could be the uncertainty your audience is feeling, which in turn is overriding their ability to recognize the idea as truly novel and useful.

Regardless of how open-minded people are, they experience a subtle bias against creative ideas when faced with uncertain situations.

If the implicit bias against creativity is triggered by uncertainty, then crafting your pitch to maximize certainty should improve the odds of the idea being accepted. You can do this in a variety of ways. Reaffirming what the client or your manager knows is true about their project should prime them to be more accepting of novel ideas. Connecting the idea to more familiar ideas, such as previous successful projects or similar works, will also increase the odds that your idea will be seen as practical and desirable. Lastly, try leading clients toward your idea with a series of statements they agree with and then pitching your idea as if it’s theirs. Thus, counteracting the bias against creativity with an even more powerful bias – the bias for our own ideas!

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Being bored is a precious thing, a state of mind we should pursue. Once boredom sets in, our minds begin to wander, looking for something exciting, something interesting to land on. And that’s where creativity arises…They are the moments in which we, often unconsciously, organize our minds, make sense of our lives, and connect the dots. They’re the moments in which we talk to ourselves. And listen.

– Peter Bregman

Beware of the 7 Biggest Creativity Killers

Creativity killer profile 1: the Control Crew 
Also known as bully oppressors, the control killer profile tends to stifle creative thinking through suppressing the ability to think freely and independently. When systems are set up that restrict freedom of thought, and when individuals perpetuate those systems through controlling approaches and actions, creativity has no room to flourish. Like the real mafia, the control killers can operate through a coercion which instills fear, which can then itself become a killer.

To deal with this killer:
Recognize areas in your life that may have become suppressed, and identify why this has happened and how this can be dealt with.

Develop a mindset that is open to exploration.

Ask open-ended questions to challenge established beliefs and assumptions without expecting specific outcomes or solutions.

Creativity killer profile 2: the Fear Family
An often unsuspected killer that can intimidate the most intrepid, this highly prolific villain thrives on anxieties about trialling new ideas and the possibility of failure. A childlike ability to take risks and risk failure without fear is critical to creative thinking, but when anxiety intervenes the fear can be crippling. It’s not surprising that one of Apple’s guiding innovation principles is to “fail wisely.”

To deal with this killer:
Have the courage to face fears of possible failure and uncertainty. Learn to see them as an important part of the creative process.

Learn to accept and embrace apparently opposing ideas (ambiguity) to open up new possibilities.

Creativity killer profile 3: the Pressure Pack
This seductive assassin dispatches its victims by exercising a stranglehold of real or perceived expectations. The faster pace of life, a greater reliance on technology, and significantly increased communication speeds, have all contributed to its prevalence. Under pressure, the body’s instinctive response is “fight, flight or freeze.” The constant adrenaline need for the “fight” response can lead to dangerous physical and psychological symptoms and ultimately literally shut down the brain, and the “flight” and “freeze” responses can lead to an inability to face up to the pressure and deal with it effectively. By using up precious mental energy at the primitive brain stem simply for survival, thus limiting access to the pre-frontal cortex where real creative thinking can occur, this killer restricts the ability to be creative.

To deal with this killer:
Identify your own typical responses to pressure.

Stand up to pressure – recognize that you have the power to stay in control of the impact of external circumstances, and find specific ways to balance your time and energy more effectively.

Be proactive in designing your life to control pressure: e.g., try drawing up a fresh schedule for yourself that gives you the time and space to do the things you would like to do as well as fitting in the things you need to do.

Prepare a platform to unleash your imagination – trial “brain teaser” exercises designed to stretch your mind into exploring a range of possibilities.

Creativity killer profile 4: the Insulation Clique
Also known as isolating killers, those fitting the insulation profile employ a lethal combination of segregation and homogeneity that can lead to biased conformity. They quarantine their victims from different ideas and information, denying them exposure to a diversity of opinions and therefore access to potentially life-saving devices. In the same way that placing prisoners in solitary confinement limits their experiences and restricts their brain capability, insulation confines the victims’ experiences and limits their capabilities over the long term. When information sources are limited in content but overwhelming in quantity, the brain simply can’t cope, and will stick with the safe secure options rather than trialling creative new ideas. A lack of diversity in teams and organizations at all levels can also limit creativity.

To deal with this killer:

Deliberately expose yourself to different people, different sources of information and different ideas. Be open and receptive to opinions and ideas that don’t match your own– ensure there is receptivity to apparently opposing perspectives.

Learn how to master conscious awareness, so that you can access difference parts of your own mental capacity and not just that parts that you usually access (try brain training exercises that utilize different capabilities, eg to access both ‘left’ and ‘right’ brain functions.)

Creativity killer profile 5: the Apathy Clan
Murderers fitting the apathy profile lack motivation and drive. These villains are often themselves victims of systems that have deadened their will to succeed, and the profile can often be detected in those with cutting sarcasm and acerbic cynicism. An apparent lack of motivation, concern or passion can be twisted into a deliberate ‘stab in the back’ or a ‘cutting remark’. A major finding Malcolm Gladwell reached through his research was that, rather than simply a genetic inheritance, successful genius is cultivated through a potent mix of lucky circumstance and sheer hard work, so apathy has no place in the process of creative development.

To deal with this killer:
Assess your own levels of engagement in what you do, and detect where there might be a lack of engagement. Recognize sarcasm or cynicism, and identify what the root cause of these might be.

Challenge your old, conservative habits and behaviors with new approaches–even if they are initially uncomfortable. Draw up a chart to list in columns: “The way I usually approach what I do,” and “A new approach”

Find ways to connect with your passions and use these as a base for action.

Creativity killer profile 6: the Narrow-minded Mob
With a stubborn and often headstrong approach, killers fitting the narrow-minded profile ensure their dupes remain trapped in their standard, familiar patterns of behavior. Victims are unwitting casualties of their own habitual ways of thinking and behaving. Narrow-mindedness leads to convergent thinking, and the full creative process requires divergent thinking before a specific focus is chosen. Human thought patterns tend to slip into these standard channels, or set ways of thinking, if they are not regularly challenged. The brain seeks to organize its thoughts–often in response to incoming information–into temporarily stable states that succeed each other to give a sequence. When a sequence or pattern is repeated, it becomes a thought-pattern or mindset that channels future thoughts more easily along the same path. It thus becomes a habitual standard way of looking at a situation or problem. Blinkered expertise, prejudice and groupthink are all examples of the way narrow-mindedness can manifest itself.

To deal with this killer:
Embrace “creative innocence”–try putting aside any notions of expertise, recognize any biases or prejudices you may have developed, and approach a situation as a child would instead.

Practice divergent thinking through exercises that encourage this.

Put yourself in others’ shoes to open up different ways of thinking. E.g., think of a problem that has to be solved, identify your usual action, then think about the different paths others in your situation might take. See if you can come up with several different possible ways the problem could have been solved.

Creativity killer profile 7: the Pessimism Posse
Another stealthy killer which operates like a chemical weapon, this profile type subtly perpetrates destruction through a toxic mindset. Sufferers of the disease initially communicate in negative ways, and eventually undermine their own and others’ attempts at creative thinking. Pessimists tend to blame themselves when things go wrong, becoming more reluctant to try again with each negative experience. Most people would most likely be unaware that as humans we have developed a natural bias against creative thinking, which interferes with our ability to recognize a creative ideas when we come across them, so it is important to recognize the profound influence of this creativity killer profile and deal with it.

To deal with this killer:
Take up a new hobby or sport, and don’t give up until you have mastered it.

Learn the art of positive self-talk and optimistic thinking and language.

Reword or rework limiting language and experiences into positive outcomes. Try keeping a diary of the things that happen each day – then track how many of these were framed in a positive way and how many in a negative way. Practice reframing the negative experiences.

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