Saturday, January 28, 2012


Click to view in larger size.
I am coining a new term that describes taking things apart to learn how they work. Dengineering  is short for de-engineering. The idea is not the same as reverse engineering where the intent is to copy the way things are made, but rather to simply learn.

Later when students have a background in the working of things, they can take what they've learned and actually make something. The idea comes from 4 things. As a kid, my father gave me things that had broken that I was allowed to take apart. Secondly professor Alex Slocum at MIT had mentioned in a conversation that "kids need to be breaking things." In other words, what good is an old iPad if you can't break it open and learn something from what's inside?

The third thing was that as I was headed to the recycling center, I wondered how to remove the battery from the cordless tooth brush that was no longer in use. I had to smash it with a hammer to get the battery out, but in the process found an intricate electric motor that would have completely fascinated me as a kid.

The fourth thing is rather disappointing. A friend in New England, who has had many years as a successful woodworking teacher was informed that the administration is closing her wood shop. She asked for ideas from the veterans in the New England Association of Woodworking Teachers, and dengineering is my proposal. Dengineering can be done on the smallest of budgets. The materials for dengineering are to be found in every household for free. Why throw away so much educational value.

The way dengineering would work is as follows. Students spend one semester taking things apart, learning why and how they are put together as they are. Make reports on what they've learned. They keep all the motors, diodes, chargers and the like, and then second semester, make something from what they've learned.

The idea is to get children to understand that every thing is of educational value. Even a thing as simple as a nail invites investigation and understanding. The idea that sometimes nails split the wood and sometimes do not invites close scrutiny. The illustration above should make my point, and also put the use of nails and the avoidance of splits within grasp, both intellectually and physically. And what good is intellect if it does not bring an understanding of reality and the capacity to do real things? And what good is information if you don't test it in your own hanDs? Take a nail, and observe its qualities. Check the markings I describe. Once trained to understand nails you can roll them in your fingers and feel the right orientation to drive them split free into wood. Your fingers will sense when the sharp edges are perpendicular to the direction of the grain, and you will marvel that you'd never noticed this before. A simple nail is symbolic of our relationship with technology. We take it for granted without fathoming its full depth and many implications.

Make, fix, and create...


  1. There are a lot of young people very much into making things and learning all kinds of skills. "Maker's" workshops are cropping up in every University and every major city as well as in elementary schools.

    This is a world wide movement where inventing and creating are considered to be essential skills.

    Taking things apart and reusing the pieces is very much a part of it. People take workshops to learn things such as welding, metal work, wood work, CAD modeling, making circuit boards and learning sewing.

    There are websites and magazines as well as Makers Fairs all around the world to support this very active and ever growing educational opportunity.

  2. Very good point, Karin. I attended a Maker Faire in Dearborn, Michigan a couple summers back and have written for Make Magazine, as well as making reference to the renewed DIY movement. There is certainly an interest among young people in the whole matter. The challenge seems to be in getting school administrators to understand the necessity of formal programs to take advantage of our natural inclinations to observe, investigate and create.