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A few days ago, I met Manuel Herrera at MORENet. He has an amazing maker space where students engage in creative thinking on a daily basis. It’s a bastion of creativity and wonder and his passion for it is contagious.

However, as we talked about prototyping and design thinking, he mentioned something surprising.

“We have a 3D printer, but only a few students know how to use it for creative purposes. Most students download templates and print things out. There’s not much actual creative thought that goes into it.”

“So, what’s the answer?” I asked.

“I think they need to start by making things by hand,” he said.

I think Manuel is onto something. 3D printers are amazing. You can create prototypes in a matter of hours that you would have previously had to spend days trying to make with inferior materials. However, there’s value in making things with cardboard or paper or duct tape. Physical prototyping might be messier and more time-consuming but it’s actually a vital part of the creative process.


What Happens When You Don’t Have a Fancy Maker Space?

One of the most frequent questions I hear after a design thinking keynote or workshop is, “What if I don’t have a fancy maker space?” Another variation is, “I don’t have a 3D printer or a set of Spheros. What can we do in a low-tech class?”

In these moments, I am reminded that it’s not about the technology. Yes, technology is great. I want to see schools go one-to-one. We need to leverage the connective and creative power of our devices. But the real power is in the creative process. Sometimes the high-tech gadgetry can actually get in the way when what students actually need is a set of low-tech tools.

Case in point, I recently ran across this video from Science Friday about a pop-up book artist. I was struck by the way the physical constraints actually pushed him to be more creative. Notice how he works within the constraints of the paper and the space. Notice, too, how he has slowly moved toward more and more complex pop up objects through iterative thinking.

While your students are not accomplished pop-up book artists, there’s value in this kind of physical prototyping that Matthew Reinhart does on a regular basis.


When I watch this video, I am reminded of the power of physical prototyping. Too often, we refer to digital works as “hands-on learning.” But I think there’s value in balancing the digital with actual hands-on learning. You know, the kind that requires your own two hands. Here’s why:

  • When students are making things with cardboard and duct tape, they are forced to be more creative by the constraint of the materials.
  • When students are prototyping by hand, they are able to monitor and adjust more easily. They don’t have to wait for the 3D printer to do it for them. Which leads to the next idea . . .
  • When students are making constant adjustments, they engage in iterative thinking. They see the design process as an evolution.
  • When students are making things by hand, they are a part of the entire process. As a result, they have a better sense of the actual physics involved in prototyping. At times, a 3D printer can work almost like Guitar Hero. You think you are making something physical but you’re really just pushing the buttons.
  • Sometimes low-tech is more developmentally appropriate. Younger students especially need to make things with their bare hands. It won’t be as polished but they will learn in a way that fits human development.
  • When students engage in physical prototyping, they don’t have to learn any new technology. For all the talk of students being digital natives, engineering programs are often complex. But with duct tape and cardboard, they aren’t required to learn a new interface.

This doesn’t mean we need to abandon 3D printers altogether. I’ve seen some amazing applications in engineering and STEM classes at the high school level. 3D printers are amazing tools for complex fabrication. However, sometimes the most innovative tools are the most analog and minimal.


The Creative Potential of Cardboard Challenges

When I taught sixth grade, I had students creating podcasts, blogs, and documentaries. However, one of the most creative projects we did was a cardboard challenge. Inspired by Caine’s Arcade, we created cardboard arcade games. Students were not only engaged; they were empowered. They were hitting a place of creative flow.

This was the first in what became a weekly dedicated time for cardboard challenges. Here’s an example:

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Our cardboard challenges weren’t always successful. The eco-friendly home challenge never really took off. However, their solar ovens, board games, bridges, and roller coasters were awesome . . . even when some of my students never quite reached the potential of what they had dreamed up in their minds.

This is part of why I love the Global Cardboard Challenge. It’s a powerful reminder that some of the most innovative ideas are vintage and that hands-on learning needs to include real human hands.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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