Avoiding Cookie Cutters


by Keith Ostfeld -

Last week, I helped fill in on the floor in one of our making spaces - the Inventors Workshop. When I arrived, the staff member I was relieving was helping a girl to build a small, tabletop catapult (our theme for the week was the Turkey-pult in honor of Thanksgiving). But, I noticed something - almost everyone in the workshop was creating a very similar catapult design. While not intending to do so, our staff member had accidentally set up a "cookie cutter" situation - she knew a design that worked and encouraged all of our visitors to make the same design so they always had nearly instant success. However, one of the great things about making and tinkering is the struggle - learning from mistakes and making improvements in order to create a better product. Failure is always an option, so long as we use what we learn to improve our creations. So, I encouraged her (and the visitors) to more focus on how catapults work, looking at the science, and the sorts of materials we had available to them that could help them make their catapults. I'd pose questions as they designed and built, asking them about functionality, what could they change to improve it, etc. I facilitated their construction, acting as an advisor (and safety supervisor) instead of a director.

A few years ago (I've lost quite a bit of weight since then, but yes, that's me), I did a video around this same topic, only it was Santa-pults - check it out here and have fun making catapults!



Heather Pang's picture

In some ways this is one of the most important issues we deal with, how to create a situtation where the learners can look at those bigger issues (how does it work? what do I need to make it work) and at the same time have some ability to fit projects into time and space, and have success with difficult challenges (after plenty of fun and educational failure!)

Your post also highlights the importance of experience and good questions. You were able to point people in a good direction, without making people crazy frustrated.