Our deepest thoughts

Le dernier cri

Aug 8, 2016   written by John Lamerand

Some people see STEM as the latest fashion in teaching. They are right and they are wrong.

“The last cry” in teaching should be balance and by focusing narrowly on STEM we run the risk of providing an incomplete education. The same goes for the so-called “common core”. 

So what to do about the latest fashion in science and maths education?

We should encourage students to see the creative aspects in science and maths, and for that reason we favour the use of STEAM (with Arts) over STEM. What we are wary of, however, is that in rushing onto the bandwagon every teacher is trying to incorporate STEAM or STEM in some way. The result is often little more than a nod in the direction of this trend. 

A policy analyst in our government sees a laptop and a SPRK and says “That’s it, that is what we will do to satisfy schools’ cravings for something new”. Of course, we understand at the school level, that the last thing we want is yet another set of guidelines and subject names to come to grips with. The last thing we want is massive spending on tools that are next to useless without professional training.

Toys look good in photo opportunities and it is comforting for newspapers to report on what our state is doing (read spending) to bring education into the 21st Century.

What we need, more than anything else, is an understanding that the subjects that we grew up with still matter. History, Geography, Biology, Physics, Geology, Maths, English, LOTE, Fine Art, Drama – these subjects still matter no matter what we call them.

The danger is, if we treat STEAM as a fashion trend, that we will miss a great opportunity to teach and enthuse our students and we may continue to experience declining enrolment in science courses at a tertiary level. There has been a steady decline over the last twenty years in science participation. We need more than just a catchy name for what we will do to reverse this trend.

Finally, the potential for STEAM is somewhat like the potential within a friendship;  it’s not about what one discipline can do for another, it’s what the two disciplines become in each other’s presence. The promise of STEAM education is that subjects that were once treated in separate silos might be allowed to mingle.

Tech that keeps giving

Aug 2, 2016   written by John Lamerand


When you offer someone a rose the fragrance will stay on your hands.

When you teach someone how to recycle, upcycle and hack you create makers. Makers don’t just tinker with toys, they create new economies.

One of the many reasons that Wayne and I “clicked” was that we both salvaged useful parts out of the things that most people throw away. With a computer shop Wayne had a constant supply of electronic goods that were brought in by customers who hoped that new life could be breathed into them. While the printer, computer, phone had “had it” there were parts that were still useful. Now, a consumer does not usually want one or two batteries or a few motors, they want a more complex solution, like a motor that drives a page through a printer.

While I did not have a computer shop I was a ravenous collector of discarded tech on large rubbish collection days and at garage sales. At one garage sale on the North Shore of Sydney I bought a slightly broken laser printer. The owner said that the paper did not feed well through the printer and he was almost apologetic when he asked $10 for it. I took it home, made the paper take up roller slightly sticky and got a year’s use out of it. And “why would I want someone else’s discarded inkjet printer?”, my wife asked. “I’m glad you asked, honey” I replied, “this printer has two wonderful stepper motors in it and each of them has a rotary encoder.”

If we lived in Shenzhen Wayne and I would probably buy what we needed from the thousands of entrepreneurs who dismantle pre-loved technology. Chances are we’d be living without the benefit of cavernous garages. We would also be able to pick and choose what we wanted and when we had chosen a part to go into a design we’d be able to get hundreds of identical recycled parts. While I may have dismantled many dozens of printers I might have half a dozen of any given part that is identical.

If we do start manufacturing our home-grown kits in large numbers we will probably get the work done where the parts are the best value: Shenzhen.

There is a lot to learn from a place like China. In the west we might have forgotten that when the Swiss first got into watches they were copycats and the French and German manufacturers were angry and snooty with the Swiss. What happened in Switzerland is curious: individual makers got very good at one particular task: one maker might be making hour hands and another might be winding springs. This method of building a watch business has a name: établissage.

In Shenzhen today they have an eastern version of établissage and it works really well. It sprang out of a supply chain movement called shanzai. As workers left big factories they brought their knowledge and a few blueprints with them and innovation without my concern for intellectual property gained pace. Because everyone realises that it is counter productive to be unpleasant to other members of your network strong relationships have been established. As a result a new, fast business model has sprung up. You don’t stay ahead by hoarding IP (intellectual property). Instead you keep innovating and hope to stay ahead of everyone else who wants a piece of the pie. If you want to develop a new thing it might take you 12 months in the West. The same task will take 3 months in Shenzhen and at the same time what you have developed will be modified and improved upon by others. In one sense everything in Shenzhen is open source and the trick is finding out how to stay nimble enough that you make money.

If the West wants to keep up with China perhaps we need to be more prepared to “offer flowers to others” and not rest on our laurels. We might also want to get better at upcycling, recycling, hacking and making.

afterword: this article in wired.com made perfect sense in light of the blog post
You Won’t Believe What Facebook Is Giving Away for Free Now

Wired article Summary: In a sense, open sourcing code offers the same potential benefit that publishing research in peer-reviewed journals does for scientists. In other words, Facebook is betting that giving away its AI tech will make for better software, because it too can benefit from the new ways others use it.

In praise of crowdfunding

Aug 1, 2016   written by John Lamerand

We love it and loathe it in equal measure. Crowdfunding, sometimes better known in terms of brands like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, is here to stay because it does something that previous methods did not do well

1) You can go straight to the consumer for funding and in so doing avoid having to talk to bankers who have little imagination until is comes time to price perceived risk aggressively.

2) You can have an idea and test the consumer’s reaction to it without having to hire a focus group, a statistician and so on. The sequence might look like this:

have an idea, test it, fail, have another idea, test it, fail, realise that you need to tweak what it is that you are doing, relaunch, succeed.

3) The public who have put their money where their mouth is can comment on what you have created and in the case of Kickstarter, you can pledge and then later remove your pledge if the weight of evidence indicates that the product is a sham, or that it does not offer real value. Note: you have to be careful on Indiegogo because pledging can result in money coming out of your bank account right away.

4) You can get together with like-minded people through a platform like BackerClub and promote worthy products through the club. If you want to know more about BackerClub please feel free to email me at john@lamerand.com.au.

5) You can get product to market faster than it would take through conventional business models. I know, you might say “Kickstarters are notorious for not delivering on time”, and you would be mostly correct because every project will face unforeseen barriers. While you can plan for what seems logical not everything you come up against in launching a business will be obvious when you start out.

For example:
The factory that you have hired to do something does not meet the failure rate,
The packaging design looks great but it is costing a bomb, so you go back to the drawing board. 
There is a breakthrough in how you can build your thing and you realise that the result will be less expensive to make and better for the customer, so you let them know and you trust your judgement that it is better to be a little late than deliver a second-rate product.
(and I have just received a call from my child’s school saying that she fell and hurt her arm, and this was not foreseen, but if I were pushing a deadline it is clear that I would put my child’s interests over the delivery schedule, so I will sign off now and go collect her)

We will be bringing you news of the crowdfunded project that we feel offer real value to teachers. Stay tuned.