CU Water Cooler

Nurturing Second Nature

Brent DixonComment

Author's note: I originally wrote the article below for Hackidemia, a project I've been working on designed to help kids use curiosity, empathy, and play to change the world. We design hands-on workshops and kits to teach kids about science, art, technology, and design through playing and building. So what does this have to do with credit unions? Why share it here?

It's common to fear what's new. Fear kills opportunity, creativity, and growth. The best way to kill fear of a new skill, perspective, technology, or truth is to dive in and get your hands dirty. We've learned this from working with kids, and have learned this even moreso from working with volunteers and mentors. "Oh gosh, I'm not a science person," said one of our event volunteers. RIght after that, she learned how to extract DNA from a strawberry and program her own video game, and spent the rest of the day teaching kids how to do both of those things. She amazed herself, and all she had to do was get over her preconceived notions of what she was capable of.

We are all like that. We often pigeonhole ourselves, we forget what we were capable of when we were young and naive and hungry, we fear failure and stop short.

But we don't have to stop short. And, in fact, we can't. In order to inspire our members, our coworkers, and ourselves, we have to get back to that place of curiosity and improvisation. We have to get back to a place where the world is full of raw material waiting to be shaped into something beautiful and new. This is how we grow as people, organizations, and communities.

I share studio space with a wine importer. She leads workshops on tasting and appreciation for her distributors. The workshops are designed to help them use taste, touch, sight, and smell to experience the meaning of things they've read on the back of wine labels. A funny thing happens to people after going through this sensory education. Once they experience what words like "bouquet" or "astringent" mean, or experience a wine that is "buttery" or has "hints of oriental spices and chocolate," their palate changes.

Creating meaning around these concepts activates their tongue and creates flavors that were not previously there. The meaning literally shapes their senses, and moves from a concept into something baked into who they are and how they experience the world.

I thought about this as we exhibited in SXSWedu's Makerspace. SXSWedu is an education event that has recently joined the family of SXSW film, interactive, and music conferences. Our table was designed as a playspace for conference attendees - mostly educators and researchers - to get their hands dirty with strawberry DNA extraction, create papercraft electronics with conductive ink, and experiment with interface prototyping using Scratch, Makey Makey, and a pile of fruits and veggies and Play-Doh.


Across the room from us was a student group from Westlake High School's FIRST Robotics team. As they described building their award-winning robot, they told a story about needing a particular part. When they realized the part retailed for over $400, they said "screw that," mocked it up in with CAD software, and printed it on the school's 3D printer. Total cost? $12. The story was striking in how matter-of-fact they explained it. Of course we're going to print this for $12 instead of buying it for $400.

This is the magic that comes with a language, a palate, from with growing up experiencing technology. The real magic from STEAM skills comes when they grow from a novelty into a natural extension of ourselves. From a magic wand into a hand. A new sense. A way of experiencing the world.

When I've demonstrated things like 3D printing or a flower drum machine to adults - in this case: volunteers, teachers, conference attendees - they tend to be amazed at the newness and the novelty of these things. Kids tend to jump in and bake it into their world. Of course there's a drum machine made of flowers, now what can I do with it? How can I evolve it? Hack it?

We wanted to showcase what Hackidemia is doing, but also (maybe especially) showcase what educators could easily do themselves. We chose paper electronics and interface prototyping from our collection of workshops because they are simple to learn, inexpensive to reproduce, and provide a creative platform with infinite possibilities expand on and hack into something completely new.

“Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into creativity. But without proper preparation, I cannot see it, retain it, and use it.”

In The Creative Habit, artist Twyla Tharp said “Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into creativity. But without proper preparation, I cannot see it, retain it, and use it.”

As educators, it's our job to turn the world into raw material, to refine palates and create senses that are as effortless to use as our hands.


Brent Dixon lives in Austin, Texas. He is a designer, educator, musician and doodler. Brent works with the Filene Research Institute to apply their research in the real world, runs the design studio The Habdash, and founded the young professionals' community the Cooperative Trust.