52 Weekends of Making

Guest blog post by Rolly Seth, Program Manager at the Microsoft Garage

Monica Houston
a year ago3D Printing

Finally, it is completed — my ’52 Weekends of Making’ — Hurray!!! Last year when I thought of taking up this challenge, I received a lot of different reactions, including doubt from several people who were concerned that either I would burn out or I would not find enough making techniques. But I am so excited now — not only that I survived this challenge and didn’t run short of activities to do, but also that I am even happier in my life.

I have met several artists and makers in this journey who have shared how making is so therapeutic for them that it has stuck with them even as they have gotten older. Coming from a technical industry myself, where most people’s jobs today are concentrated on sitting in front of a computer, I fully endorse making as a therapeutic medicine, too.

I might not remember the name of every creative whom I have met in my journey, but I am so thankful to each and every one of them who — knowingly or unknowingly — taught me skills and also about following one’s passion. I feel like I self-created and successfully graduated with a ‘Master’s Degree in Making’.

I have so many new inter-disciplinary ideas and so many insights to share that I will run short of space in this blog post. So, I will keep it basic. Let me start by explaining what I did, why I did it, and how I plan to use it. As I would get more time to reflect on my learnings over the next year, I might post videos and blogs for each of the deeper insights. But for now, here we go –

What is the ’52 Weekends of Making’ challenge?

The challenge aimed at finding a new making skill each weekend for 52 weeks and try to learn it by doing. Since for several of these skills I didn’t know anything about them apart from their names (or I figured out the names even at the last moment) when I started, I had to find places which already had these specialized resources. Thus, it required lot of searching and travelling for me. The goal was to restrict myself to only Washington state for ease of commute, but there were exceptions when I travelled to other states, too.

Was it 52 consecutive weekends?

The goal was to have it be 52 consecutive weekends. But soon I realized even the basic exposure of some of these skills cannot come on a single weekend. So, I had to take up four to six weeks series, too. Thus, technically, the challenge that I originally thought could be completed in a year took more than 1½ years to complete.

Why 52 weekends only?

Unfortunately, I neither did any mathematical calculation nor followed Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rules for mastery to decide ‘52’ as the number. It just felt right. If I had gone to a graduate school, I would have spent roughly the same amount of time getting exposure. Here the only difference was that I had the freedom to decide my own curriculum. Early in my career, I had pursued ‘Young India Fellowship’, a year-long liberal arts program to gain exposure to multi-disciplinary skills beyond my engineering degree and one year felt like the right duration. But making is so addictive that I have technically learned more than 52 skills and even still have a pending list 😊.

The list of making activities

I have posted the names of those 52 activities in the description of my YouTube video, since listing all of them would take lot of space. I might make a separate list of the places for learning that I found in my exploration across Washington state, and where I met some of the most creative minds.

Cost

The challenge definitely required managing finances, as some of these skills had a high cost of learning or even getting exposure to. But what I realized eventually was that the total money spent in these 52 weekends was less than or comparable to the fees I would have spent on taking up a part-time degree course from some big universities. So, this was definitely worth the cost… at least, for me it was.

Why did I do it?

I had more than one reason to do this challenge and that made it all the more compelling for me to take up this challenge.

Exploring new ways of integrating technology

I am a big fan of inter-disciplinary education, and around a decade ago I had written a review paper on ambient technologies and pervasive computing. Certainly, the technology has advanced since then, but traditional arts and crafts and state-of-the-art technologies are still considered two sides of the spectrum. I thought that it was time to move beyond research papers and web searches and explore the possibilities by doing hands-on. Although, I didn’t get time to finish some of the more advanced project ideas that I started this year, even simple prototypes such as:

Further, mixing art with technology helped me find a right balance between my brain and heart 😊.

  • Dye-sublimation and augmented reality
  • Crystal clay that is air-dried and makes it easier to integrate electronics
Lifelong learner

One of my dreams was to pursue my graduate studies and eventually a PhD. Even though that dream has not been actualized (maybe because of my high expectations from my learning needs or unable to find a fit), the cravings for learning only grew exponentially. I still remember ordering parts in India where I would have to pay double the cost in shipping. I knew hardly anyone understood my passion. Coming to the US was a blessing, as things that I always wanted but didn’t have access to were right in front of me, like a kid in a toy store for the first time. I didn’t want to let go of this learning opportunity even though it meant giving up my weekends for exploration. One of my professors had once said to me that I will not learn what I like to do until I try it out. So that’s what I did.

Moving beyond 3D printers and laser cutting

A couple of years back, my maker world was quite limited in terms of my maker vocabulary. I had only experimented with popular equipment such as 3D printers and laser cutters, and I didn’t understand several of the terminologies that might be considered common in US — like lost wax casting and wood turning. My day job also required me to explore new mediums and materials to help inspire and support other people with their ideas. Questions around the future of making and makerspaces were in my mind. So, this challenge provided me a perfect platform to understand what’s out there and what resonates with me the most.

Prototype to manufacturing

My friends and I built several hardware prototypes in the past that had received national and international accolades, but one of the struggles was not able to figure out that big jump from hardware prototypes to manufacturing. I thought of taking advantage of this opportunity to explore what things can be scaled and how.

What did I learn?

I will start by saying that my goal was to just get exposure and in no way can I claim to have any mastery on any of the skills. But I feel that I learned so many things — like how different materials interact, or tools & platforms that are a good pair for technology integration, or real-life design thinking sessions from creatives — that now inspire and guide me in my job and hobbies. I will try to answer the frequently asked question regarding this challenge, considering my initial goal was to find additional ways technology can be integrated with arts and crafts-

Which skill among those 52 did I like the most?

People don’t realize but this is the most difficult question for me to answer as I liked different skill for different purposes and it would be wrong to rank them in any order.

a. If I would be forced to select a skill, I will go with ‘printed circuit board (PCB) Art’ as it has stuck with me the most and I have been able to quickly scale it, too. I feel this skill can also act as a base to integrate all other making skills that I learned, like integrating felting with PCB Art. I didn’t know PCB Art is also a field until one of my colleagues told me about it. This hackster.io PCB Art workshop helped provide the perfect inspirational start for me.

b. Another new medium for me would be various kinds of Resins, especially Art Resin where electronics and other technologies can be quickly integrated.

c. I was also quite excited with the technology integration possibilities with clay, especially polymer clay and crystal clay.

d. Obviously one of the most sustainable and scalable mediums has been paper. I took a class on paper engineering and learned things such as pop-ups and origami books. I think paper engineering still has lots of unexplored areas.

There is more learning hopefully to be shared later as I get more time to decipher some of what I experienced and present it in a coherent way.

How I plan to use what I learned from this challenge? What’s next?

- I am interested in exploring flex-PCB and PCB-origami concepts to see how some of the 52 making skills can be seamlessly integrated with them.

- I plan to focus on projects integrating some state-of-the-art technologies especially AI and IoT with some of these making skills in the next year.

- I plan to finish some of the advanced projects, such as Henna Tattoo Printer that I started but didn’t get time to finish.

- Having spent years in the prototyping world, I am looking forward to continuing my explorations on design for manufacturing and how ideas are taken from prototypes to products. One thing I have found early in my explorations that standard manufacturing pipelines don’t fit the requirements. I am more interested in small-scale manufacturing, which is quite different from the large-scale manufacturing, but very few people talk about it. I know it’s a niche market and I am excited to have interacted with some of the companies working in the domain, such as Dragon Innovation.

Overall, it was one of the best experiences of my life so far! And still I have so many questions yet to be unanswered-

  • What are the skills of the future — specialization or generalization?
  • What is MOOC equivalent for making?
  • What should be the path for an individual who doesn’t want to restrict thinking to a single field such as Computer Science or arts or mechanical engineering? Are there more strugglers like me who don’t want to see the world from a single viewpoint and are looking for inter-disciplinary education but can’t afford to pursue three different degrees?

Signing off from this blog post 😊 Keep learning and experimenting!

~Rolly

Reference URLs

  • Summary video with making activities list
  • 52 weekends of Making video playlist

Annex- The 52 activities list:

Monica Houston
I don't live on a boat anymore.
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