Technology is for Breaking

We are delighted to feature a post from Carey Gibbons, one of the awesome librarians who tested out our maker kits during the Beta Phase. Carey is the Teen Programming Coordinator at Fondulac Distrcit Library in East Peoria, IL. Thanks for your wonderful work, Carey!

My library was lucky enough to participate in Make It @ Your Library’s pilot program for circulating various maker kits in the state of IL. FDL was the second library to test out the 3D printer kit, which was exciting and at first terrifying.

But first, a little bit about me. I am a full time employee at FDL in the position of teen programming coordinator. I do my best to provide programming for teens such as book clubs, craft projects, and a twice yearly study night. I admit to being reluctant when it came to STE(A)M programming. MaKey MaKey? Raspberry Pi? 3D printers? How was I supposed to teach teens how to use this stuff when I barely had a grasp on my own smartphone? I applied to the Make It @ Your Library pilot program anyway because figuring out how to use our maker kit was future Carey’s problem.

Future Carey quickly became present Carey as the 3D printer arrived at FDL. It was a slick looking Dremel and it came with a binder of instructions. I read this binder. It was intimidating. 3D printers were for engineers or high tech doctors. They were for making prosthetic limbs or printing food in space. Wait – could I print a pizza? This thing did look like an Easy Bake Oven. The instruction binder said not to put anything in the printer other than the plastic filament that was provided so pizza was out. But I turned it on, punched some buttons and the first thing we made at FDL was a slightly lumpy 20 sided die, the design of which had been preloaded onto an SD card that came with the printer.

Omg. We printed a thing. There was a thing in the printer that hadn’t been before and all we needed to do was press some buttons boop beep boop. This was easy! But it was still scary. I was constantly afraid that we were going to junk something up and break this very expensive piece of futuristic technology and that the consequences would be dire – FDL would be branded with the library equivalent of the Mark of Cain.

Well, we broke the printer.

Within a couple of days, we had managed to jam up the extruder (the heated nozzle where the filament comes out) from both the inside and outside and instead of printing recognizable things, the printer was just pooping hot filament all over the place. I spent some time on the phone with Dremel and they walked me through a number of steps in cleaning the extruder from the inside in three different ways. At first, my stomach was in knots. I was going to break it even more, I wasn’t doing it right, oh god technology is hard! But each time I cleaned the inside parts, it got less hard and less scary.

However, after three cleaning attempts, the extruder was still clogged up from the outside and I could not get the filament off of it without sharp objects. Dremel decisively told me not to do that. I took some pictures of the messed up extruder and sent them to the tech services person at Dremel who had been working with me. After a slight pause, she was like, “Yeah, this is bad. You need a new part. We’ll send you a new part with instructions on how to replace it.”

It was at this point that I contacted the folks at Make It @ Your Library with the news that we broke their printer and we needed a new part and I didn’t think I could fix it. Their response changed my whole outlook on programming and technology in general. It boiled down to, “That’s cool. Breaking stuff is cool. You’ve got this.”

I played in my high school’s orchestra as a kid. I got an MFA in creative writing as a slightly older kid. When it came to creative and fine arts, I was always told that if I was going to mess up, to do it big. But I had never applied this to real physical things. Botching a concert or taking a flawed story to workshop was how I learned to do better. Breaking the 3D printer and fixing it was also going to teach me to do better. And it would teach me to “be not afraid.” And it was going to teach me to pass this lesson on to young people – which I will get to in a second.

Dremel overnighted the replacement part with a thick packet of instructions and color photos. I rolled up my cardigan sleeves and got to work. I took apart the ruined extruder/motor/fan unit and replaced it with the new one. The printer was back in service by the end of the day. I had gone from a hot mess to totally confidant. I needed my Rosie the Riveter bandanna. Breaking a thing and taking apart its component parts goes a long way toward understanding a thing. The 3D printer is no longer magic, and that’s good. When you don’t understand a thing, it’s so much easier to fear.

But let’s circle back to the young people I’m supposed to be working with. To be honest, there was not a lot of interest in the 3D printer at FDL. We had a few patrons who were interested in seeing how it worked and I gave a few tutorials, but mostly staff made a lot of fun stuff to show off to each other. However, because of the 3D printer, I was invited to spend one night a week at the local high school helping students in the Maker Club build their own 3D printers. How cool is that?! Every week, about a dozen kids get together with help from River City Labs, the U of I Fab Lab, 4H, high school teachers, and FDL and work on making 3D printers.

Helping them with the mechanics of building is really cool. But it is hard. Very hard. This goes far beyond replacing a single part. These kids are doing this from scratch. And I hear a lot of negative stuff, especially from the young women involved. “I’m stupid.” “I can’t do this.” “What if I break it?” Young women don’t get a whole lot of encouragement with sciency/techy things. I mean in general – this program at the high school is spectacular! But I always counter these things I hear from them, “You’re not stupid. You can do this. See – you just did it! What if you break it? Well, let’s find out!”

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