“Our projects are for people and for the community”

The “Timmy” is a heated lighted up boot. The boys who made it (ages 11 and 12), describe it this way: “This fall, Angie walked in with a cast on and said her toes were cold she really wished that a heated boot/cast existed.  At first we thought about doing this with a cast, but then thought that not everyone has a cast, and a shoe might be better — but specifically a boot.  This worked well, because we could combine our love for sneakers with a winter boot.  When you have to get to places, you have to go outside. You have to go outside to get anywhere. I walk to the Boys and Girls Club from home on days that I don’t have school, for example. Even when I have a car to ride in, I still have to walk to that car. And when your feet are cold in the winter they get itchy because of the cold! Sometimes my feet get so cold, they feel numb — so you have to itch your feet to get the numbness out. In the wintertime, boots keep snow out, they keep snow from getting into your shoes, they should be waterproof, and they should be high quality. With these heated boots, instead of having to stand by a heater when you walk inside, you can walk around anywhere you need to go with heated boots.”

M and T along with several other helpers worked on this boot for 4 months two days a week after school in GET City’s Making 4 Change program. With help from an undergraduate engineering major, their peers and teachers, the boys carefully and systematically developed a system that worked. Their tech specs include the following (as the have described it):

  • The Timmy is made out of high-quality leather and has rubber soles. The tongue is rubbery and it will have laces that come in different colors.
  • We have included 2 5V heating elements in each boot, which are located in the sole of the boot (under the sole, so it is still comfy and cushiony, but very warm. To make it warmer in this proof-of-concept prototype, we modified/hacked 2 5V 15x5cm heating elements for each sole! We soldered wires to connect the heating elements together. That was really hard work to do!
  • The boots are powered by rechargeable batteries, located inside a hidden zipper compartment in the tongue of the shoe. Super slick styling with designer zipper.
  • We used heat-safe (Teflon-coated) wiring to connect the heating elements to the rechargeable batteries.
  • The batteries are removable so you can charge them up again if they run out of power (because, let’s be honest, you will want to wear these boots every day and they will be on ALL THE TIME because you will love them). We are including a separate charger pack that is solar panel-powered, so you just have to keep the charger next to a window when you want to recharge your heated Timmy boots.

On Thursday March 24, 2016 the boys presented their Timmy at a regional “youth start up” conference. As you walked into the Lansing center where the conference was hosted, you noticed many fancy and large displays. The boys’ presentation was understated. They had their Timmy plus a lap top with a Powerpoint presentation explaining their engineering design and solution. As they walked around visiting different youth ‘start ups’ they made an interesting observation. M stated “I noticed that when I came in here most people here are just about selling something like food, and not to make the community better. Our projects are for people, to make citizens more better, like sickness and problems. The heating pads in our boots, that is for sickness, to make people feel better.” And another youth stated “these projects are only about making money, not about making things better.” While the youth noticed that there were ‘Start Ups’ focused on providing a helping service (e.g., a house cleaning service for people who need it), the youth noted that they and their families could not afford those services.

And, as one of the youth wondered, “is being an entrepreneur only about money?”
That M and T described the Timmy in the following way further captures this point: “The Timmy is for people that can’t afford shoes, people that don’t have boots for winter, like homeless people that we see in Lansing, we will have a website where we sell boots for free for homeless people (people that aren’t able to pay for it). Our product is very useful for winter and for people that have cold feet, or just want to look cool. And we’ll be coming out with heated or cooling house slippers to keep you warm or cool depending on the time of the year.”

Other projects represented by GET City youth include:

  • A little free STEM library with take home maker kits so that kids “can make things at home just like us in GET City” and “learn things they do not learn in school”.
  • A no home phone emergency button to help families who do not have phones get emergency help with needed because “one time my family didn’t have a phone and my cousin got hurt and needed stitches”
  • A heated bus seat and bus station system because “we get cold waiting for the bus”
  • A “by kids for kids” DIY video series to be placed on a YouTube station that show cases girls and youth of color teaching about how to use green energy in making projects because “we had a hard time figuring out how to use piezo pads because there were no kid friendly materials we could find” and “kids need to see themselves in the DIY videos because most of them are grown up white men.”

All of these projects identified a need that would make their communities “better” as M stated. All of these youth created working prototypes after 4 and 5 and 6 months of after school work. This contrast between projects for profit and projects for community well-being, highlighted by the youth, raise some points we want to reflect further upon. Below we highlight three:

A collectively defined practice of making for the public good: What does it mean to make for the public good? Why does the public good drive the youth to engage in engineering design? How might we recognize those moments were youth identify needs within the public good that push back on the systematic racism, classism and sexism the youth experience as budding engineers for sustainable communities?

The youth’s engineering and making work is grounded in the collectively formed interests and needs of their community, and often interests that carried deep meanings at the powered boundaries of race, class and gender. The youth we work with all come form lower-income communities, and nearly all are youth of color. The problems they identify are defined through interactions with others and leverage others’ experiences and struggles – which they see themselves as a part of – towards making. The Timmy was designed because the youth were aware, generally, of how wet and cold their feet can be in the winter. They all shared stories of how their feet turn numb and begin to itch when they have stayed so cold for so long during the day. And yet, their boot first belongs to the homeless in their community because they recognize that their need is even greater than their own. This collective form of engagement also speaks to the knowledge communities in which youth participate, and which cross into their making community: peer, family, on-line, STEM, and local communities.

Challenging dominant narratives of why focus on STEM? What counts as engineering? Why should we teach engineering practices as a part of our work in makerspaces?

The “for profit contrast” also brings to the fore dominant discourses in society regarding the role of STEM in economic advancement amidst increasing global competition. In federal policy, America’s position in the world is described as being threatened by “comparatively few American students pursu[ing] expertise in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics” (US Department of Education, 2015). This neoliberal imperative erodes a sense of collective responsibility in using STEM towards building the public good. Not only does this frame market-driven value and self-interests over democratic citizenship, civic responsibility, and an ethic of care, but it also marginalizes issues of social justice/equity. The neoliberal agenda suggests that young people growing up in poverty should be interested in engineering only because becoming a professional in engineering will improve one’s lot in life, and the workforce may benefit from diverse views. We are not saying that youth should not be in positions of economic advancement. Rather, that the impetus for engaging in making and engineering design ought to be complex, and their desires for the world as it could be ought to be recognized in public discourse and practice.

Making the powered boundaries of race, class and gender problematic and transparent. The youth consistently and powerfully engaged in practices that validated and attempted to address their families’ and friends’ economic, health, and well-being struggles. While they do not explicitly invoke race in their design work, their messages about who their designs are for and why act as strong responses to the “racialized practices” they have experienced in science and in their community (Martin & Shah, 2014). Their messages about who is excluded — because of what they value in innovation — in the city’s Start Up Fair is also clear. The youth make the inequities they experience in their lives because of their positionings a central struggle in their design work. They show us that they work hard, care about STEM, are smart and capable AND they are people who care for and with their community. Their engineering designs and the practices they take up to make these designs a reality offer possibilities for how we might better understand and challenge “the racial contestation, stratification, hierarchies, and ideologies” that characterize the spaces in which they live and work (Martin & Shah, 2014). Their practices offer a vision for how to transform these power hierarchies in ways that open up new spaces for becoming in engineering and in the role of engineering for sustainable communities.

We have so much to learn from these youth, and this short reflection only scratches the surface of what they are teaching us. I, personally, am grateful that I have the chance to be challenged by and connected to their efforts to make this world a better place.

Learn more about the Timmy HERE! Read the Lansing State Journal article about the Timmy HERE!

This entry was posted in Engineering, Equity, makerspace, Making 4 Change, Youth Makers, youth makerspace on by .

About Angela Calabrese Barton

Angela Calabrese Barton is a professor in teacher education. Her research focuses on issues of equity and social justice in science education, with a particular emphasis on the urban context. Drawing from qualitative and critical/feminist methodologies, she conducts ethnographic and case study research in urban community- and school- based settings that targets the science teaching- learning experiences of three major stakeholder groups: upper elementary and middle school youth, teachers learning to teach science for social justice, and parents engaging in their children’s science education. She also engages in curriculum research and development that links nutrition and science literacies in the upper elementary and middle school classroom.

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