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Let's Have a Battery-Free Christmas

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

Like the perennial "It's a Wonderful Life" I’d like to make this one a Christmas tradition. 

When I was growing up, let's just say it was several years ago, battery operated toys were just coming into existence. In those days, batteries (technically, energy cells) were expensive enough that most electric toys were sold without them. Hence, the phrase we still sometimes hear today "Batteries not included.” It was kind of a sign that you were up to date with technology if you got something for Christmas that required batteries. Parents wanted to give their kids the latest so why give those boring, non-electric gifts like Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs or erector sets when the kids wanted the electric toys that had lights, bells and the ability to move around on their own through simple electric motors? 

One of my favorites from my era was a "robot" similar to those appearing in movies and shows like "Lost in Space.” Also, at that time, the "Jetson's" animated cartoon show sported "Rosie" the robot maid. Although hokey by today's standards, we didn't know of anything else so the robot that would merely light up and move around the floor was as exciting to us as the more sophisticated cool robots of today. That early robot didn't teach me much, except how to insert the batteries in the right direction but it was a cool toy. Fortunately for me, I kept on playing with the Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and my erector set. 

The trend to electric and now electronic toys has continued over the last 50 years--admittedly, with some really cool technology always emerging. This keeps parents wanting to make sure their kids have the latest electronic gadgets. Unfortunately, this trend has contributed to two or three generations of folks who, by and large, don't know how to make things with their hands. Actually, many don’t try to make anything with their hands or fix anything around the house as they lack the imagination inspired by playing with hands-on toys that required tinkering and making. 

We see this all the time at Fab Lab ICC with people of all ages that are not very adept at using their hands. In the first year we were open, 2014, one of our ICC students was a wizard at creating complex 3d drawings in using a computer program, but he couldn't make anything with his hands. He didn’t know a Philips from a flat-head screwdriver. He moved on before we could give him much experience at using hand tools and making things and will be at a disadvantage in his professional and personal life. 

Over the last few years, when we bring kids to Fab Lab ICC for maker boot camps, STEM camps and other activities, we make sure there's plenty of working with hand tools mixed in with the digital work of creating files that run the cool fabrication machines. Here's the thing. The kids love making things with their hands as much as making digital files on the computer. 

The most successful people in the future at work, at home and in business—and the future is now--are those who will make things using drills, screwdrivers and hammers combined with the latest digital technology. Even those in a non-maker profession will be better at solving work-related problems because of their ability to create and make. 

I'm not really advocating a totally battery-free Christmas, however, the toys we give, and the activities we provide for our kids (of all ages) need to be a combination of the cool technology along with some handwork with manual hand tools. The learning and increase in self-confidence that happens with this combination is phenomenal and very satisfying for the gift giver to observe. 

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu or Twitter @jimcorrellks. Archive columns and podcast at jimcorrell.com. 

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