A review of Makers by Mail, a mail order kit for physical computing, created by Christina Boyles and Andrew Boyles Petersen
Makers by Mail
Kimberley Martin, University of Guelph
Christina Boyles and Andrew Boyles Petersen
Developed in 2016, Makers by Mail was a minimal computing project that sought to increase access to and knowledge of fabrication technologies. Rather than following traditional place-bound makerspace models, Makers by Mail sought to lend portability and accessibility to maker culture by sending technologies directly to community partners. To do so, project coordinators shipped technologies like littleBits and Arduino to community partners by Priority Mail, a relatively low-cost shipping option. Partners only incurred the cost of shipping plus the value of any lost or damaged parts. As such, participants gained access to fabrication technologies without having to incur costs for purchase or maintenance. Sample lesson plans were shared along with the technologies, making it possible for individuals or groups to learn about minimal computing with no prior knowledge.
As such, Makers by Mail provided technological education that was both accessible and affordable, particularly for individuals and community partners that did not have access to other makerspace programs. This model gave a broader group of users the opportunity to access physical computing tools and, in the process, engaged participants in critical making and maker culture, allowing them to gain confidence in coding, building, and digital literacy.
While this model was easily implementable, cost-effective, and received positive feedback from participants, the project also faced a number of challenges. Some examples are as follows:
• The project coordinators struggled to develop relationships with communities beyond their immediate networks. We were honored to receive a micro-grant from the Association for Computers in the Humanities (ACH) for this project, which we’d hoped would spur participation from the broader digital humanities community. Although we found great audiences with local public libraries as well as Midwestern colleges and universities, we hoped to engage more meaningfully with practitioners across digital humanities, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.
• When we left the institution where the project was housed in 2017, there were complications transferring the project to our new employers. Since we were both in precarious positions, our institution and an early collaborator laid claim to a large quantity of the Makers by Mail kits, making it difficult to keep the project in operation.
• Some participants expressed discomfort with using new technologies without in-person intervention from the project’s coordinators. Although kits were vetted with preliminary multivariate testing, different levels of expertise and interest from users led us to reevaluate our project’s strategies for instruction and dissemination.
Our initial kits focused on the ways in which digital humanities can intervene in topics pertaining to surveillance and privacy. Over the past four years, we have increased our engagement with these topics -- teaching the Surveillance and the Critical Digital Humanities course at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI), launching SurvDH, and developing a pedagogical guide on critical surveillance in the humanities. If we were to re-launch this project, we would only deepen our engagement with these topics. We know that the surveillance state is becoming ever more present, and we want to encourage digital humanists to interact with these topics in ethical, accessible, and effective ways.
Makerspaces have taken off over the past 10-15 years. School libraries, children’s museums, art galleries, and university campuses are just a few of the places you might find a makerspace: a meeting place and workshop for all types of “making” (which can include woodworking, electrical work, DIY-fashion, and 3D design, amongst other things). One thing many critics of makerspaces have noted is the lack of easy access to these spaces, particularly for people who live outside of major cities or those with financial constraints. The Makers by Mail project, conceived and run by Christina Boyles and Andy Boyles Petersen, aims to change this through the development of a new model for mobile makerspaces: guided maker “kits” that consist of “small fabrication technology and instructions” that are available to the public for no more than the cost of shipping.
At the moment, three main kits are available on the website: a DIY-server kit that uses a Raspberry-Pi micro-computer, and Surveillance Camera and Cell Phone Triggered Camera kits that work with littleBits: the modern successor of Snap-Circuits. The kits seem to be well-designed: intentionally kept on a small scale to reduce costs associated with shipping and with a single, focused goal. All three are aimed at a late-teen to early adult audience, which is a nice change, as so many maker projects are aimed at the K-8 level. The instructions on the site are formatted as a set of slides, which do not seem to give enough information for one to follow through on the exercise at hand. One imagines that the kits themselves come with printed instructions, especially as it would be ill-advised to assume that the individuals or schools that order the kits would have access to the internet and computers given the role the project has taken on: to provide maker technology to those that might not otherwise be access it.
While Makers by Mail has some of the building blocks for creating a mobile makerspace, they are missing one very important piece: community. Makerspaces, no matter where they are located, are made possible, and even profitable, by the community members that frequent them. Learning to use maker tech, like the littleBits and Raspberry Pi included in Makers by Mail, is not impossible without a community, but it is a whole lot less fun. Having access to folks you can rely on to answer some basic questions, to troubleshoot, or to create with makes a difference. I can imagine these kits going out to their respective locations and remaining incomplete, therefore failing to make their intended impression. The Makers by Mail site itself looks to offer one way to combat this: their Teaching Commons, which promises to bring together resources on their kits, including teaching materials and instructions. Unfortunately, the space is empty at the moment. Using this web page to spark some curiosity and getting a conversation going would be a good start towards building some community.
The funding for Makers by Mail was originally provided by ACH. Though the dollar amount of the initial grant is unknown, there are many costs associated with maker technology that would quickly make a project of this sort unsustainable. For example, littleBits, while great for sparking curiosity, break quite frequently and require batteries to operate. While the only other consumable in the kits at the moment is duct tape, one can imagine this number growing as the projects expand, and these costs, in addition to replacements for obsolete technology, have to be accounted for as the project grows. One possible method of overcoming this barrier to growth would be to partner with the tech companies whose maker materials Makers by Mail is already using. littleBits, in particular, has a large following and hundreds of lessons available online. A partnership that allows Makers by Mail to create more of these kits while indirectly advertising for littleBits and providing maker-education materials to folks in need of them seems like a win-win…win.