Making It

Eleven-year-old Caine Monroy has finally closed down his homemade cardboard box arcade. But at Assemble, a makeshop in Pittsburgh, there’s plenty of tinkering still going on.

It’s been more than three years since Caine Monroy’s elaborate cardboard arcade in front of his dad’s used auto parts shop was catapulted to fame by Nirvan Mullick’s short film. But last summer, after two years and tens-of-thousands of customers, Cain “retired” on his eleventh birthday and closed Caine’s Arcade to the public. 

The last day was probably a first step for Caine, though. The film has been seen 8 million times and counting, and it has spun into a movement that’s spawned numerous think pieces, a scholarship fund, and a TEDx talk. Most notably, it spurred the creation of the Imagination Foundation, which aims to find, foster, and fund creativity in kids through programs such as the Global Cardboard Challenge and pop-up learning spaces called Imagination Chapters.

Last week, the foundation featured a piece on Assemble, aptly titled “Making it in Pittsburgh.” Assemble is a one-of-a-kind gem, and the folks at the Imagination Foundation have noted how Assemble has become a home for invention and creativity in the Garfield neighborhood.

From kids soldering solar panels, to extracting DNA from a strawberry, to building windmills, the article details the day-to-day tinkering, making, and collaborative learning that happens in the space.

The article also touches on Saturday Crafternoons, free weekend workshops where local makers and crafters lend their skills to help make community-focused projects that merge science, art, and craft. A few months ago, kids created a mosaic timeline of Nelson Mandela’s life in the Nelson Mandela Peace Park around the corner from Assemble. And yes, on one Saturday afternoon last year, kids went all out with the Global Cardboard Challenge.

[one_third][blockquote]“When kids make something, they glow with not just enthusiasm, but knowing that they can. Knowing that you can is the biggest part of the battle.” [/blockquote][/one_third][two_third_last]

“I hope that when they leave, they understand that someone made up everything in the world around us, from the food that we eat to the clothes that we wear and the buildings that we live in,” Assemble director Nina Marie Barbuto told the foundation.

As the article explains, Assemble and Pittsburgh’s other spaces, such as MAKESHOP or TechShop, are a small part of the much broader maker movement that’s been picking up even more national attention recently. The White House just hosted its first Maker Faire, and national media descended on the 17-foot-tall robotic giraffe that strolled along the White House lawn. People around the country saw creations, such as 3D-printed models of viruses and a shoe insert that charges an iPhone by walking (invented by Pittsburgh’s SolePower startup!). [/two_third_last]

With all the attention surrounding making, journalist Katrina Schwartz at Mind/Shift recently asked if hands-on learning and tinkering had entered the mainstream discussion enough to make its way into more classrooms. It’s probably too soon to tell, but the massive response to Caine and other maker kids, such as Sylvia of Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show and Joey “Marshmallow” Hudy, may suggest that a growing number of parents and educators are picking up on the value of making.

It’s bizarre, beautiful, and sometimes terrifying how the internet propels people and things into the cultural mainstream in a matter of days. Sometimes, viral sensations are just cat-related and ridiculous. But other times, there’s one element that connects with society on a deeper level. At a time when shop classes have been cut and kids are more plugged in than ever, seeing Caine create a world of tape and cardboard struck a chord with parents, educators, and even kids who took to their own cardboard boxes.

Although when we talk about making we often gravitate toward 3D printers and robotics kits, making—in essence—is about exploring and hands-on learning, not the materials. Tech wizardry is one route to enhancing that process, but Caine’s Arcade was simply the idea of kids learning all sorts of STEM and “soft” skills through making, whether with cardboard or code.

That’s what Assemble and so many Pittsburgh organizations give kids the chance to do: to find the power in being creators, not just consumers.

Barbuto summed it up well in the Imagination Foundation piece: “When kids make something, they glow with not just enthusiasm, but knowing that they can. Knowing that you can is the biggest part of the battle.”

For kids in Pittsburgh and throughout the country, the maker movement entering the mainstream is, hopefully, only the beginning of a larger role of self-directed learning in and out of the classroom. And as far as Caine’s next move? He’s opening a bike shop.

Published July 15, 2014