Until relatively recently, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to build himself a table. Or know how to fix a watch. Now, most of us struggle with—or derive a sense of pride from—successfully assembling an Ikea dresser.
It’s easy to romanticize the days of DIY. The truth is, most of our lives were made critically easier with the advent of mass production and high-tech machines. That said, there is still plenty of potential—cognitive and career-wise—in bringing young people closer to the creation of the products they use.
Today is the fourth annual national Manufacturing Day, designed to honor manufacturers and attract young people to jobs in the field. The holiday is a good reminder to celebrate and carve out opportunities for innovative, hands-on building.
Manufacturing education doesn’t have to resemble the shop classes of yore. These days, there is an emphasis in the inventive and unusual—“an economic imperative,” according to President Obama, who hosted the first White House Maker Faire last year.
The benefits of making and building are manifold, for individuals and society. In the New York Times, Allison Arieff described the scene at San Francisco’s Tinkering School, where kids are given real tools and safety lessons, and told to build a mechanical King Kong or an eight-person bike.
“This isn’t just a bunch of kids messing around with stuff,” Arieff writes. “Behind the chaos you can see the gears turning. There is no template, no set of instructions (and no screens). They need to be attentive, engaged, and curious. As they begin a project, they’re learning how to collaborate, identify the skill sets of their group, deploy those talents accordingly, and problem-solve creatively.”
Building, making, tinkering—whatever you want to call it—equips young learners with technical expertise and sets the stage for big ideas. Once someone knows how something is made, they can better figure out how to improve it or come up with a new version. Steve Jobs grew up observing his mechanically skilled father (who built his son his own workbench), and has partially credited that early experimentation with his later ingenuity.
Most people feel empowered when they create something themselves. And not just kids. A Harvard Business School study on the “Ikea effect” found that participants who successfully make a product value it more than if they hadn’t make it. The authors include an anecdote about cake mixes. Designed to make housewives’ lives easier, cake mixes were not immediately embraced by the intended users. Instead, customers were resistant to a product that made their labor and skill no longer valued or necessary. Thus, cake mix companies changed the recipe to require bakers to add an egg themselves.
We may have a newly dedicated national day for manufacturing, but several programs in the Pittsburgh area, site of the 15th largest steel manufacturer in the world U.S. Steel, encourage it year round. (Although Pittsburgh doesn’t yet, some cities like Philadelphia have tool lending libraries, which make building projects accessible and cheaper.)
Chartiers Valley School District launched its high school Engineering Academy in 2012. Students learn to draw and design, and eventually manufacture, products and systems as varied as infrastructure and robots. At East Westmoreland Career and Technology Center, which serves students from three school districts as well as adults, a grant-funded windmill teaches students about green energy. The windmill is part of a new outdoor classroom designed and built by students in the center’s construction, information technology, mechatronics, and digital media programs. The center even has a dedicated cabinetmaking track.
Over the summer, 412Build offers Pittsburghers ages 16 to19 the chance to transform a vacant lot into a valuable community space. That means they learn to design and build features like dog feeders and planter boxes, picking up practical financial planning and market research skills along the way.
For those who aren’t enrolled in these immersive programs, Manufacturing Day offers curious young people plenty of casual forays into the field. Available tours include a 3D printing showroom, steel wire factory, winery, or technical college. Peruse the nearly 2,000 national events online and don’t miss the Pittsburgh Maker Faire on October 10 and 11.