The World's Most Dangerous (and Fun) Science Class
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Lectures are so old-school.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
Entrepreneur Cesar Harada is sitting in the middle of a busy beehive of disorderly engineers, scientists and designers who are frenetically sawing wood and welding metal as they build their latest prototype. But wait: Those are kids wielding the heavy tools, 8 years old and four feet high. “I am just here to make sure that they don’t cut themselves,” says Harada.
But, of course, Harada does much more than nurse wounds.
He’s the 32-year-old mastermind behind an unconventional classroom called MakerBay, nestled in a gritty, gray industrial block of Hong Kong. It’s a metal factory turned hack lab where children push the creative envelope every day with plenty of tools to transform table lamps into shape-shifting robots or carpet fabric into wind turbines. Meanwhile, Harada is the steward of the city’s bustling tinker movement, which harnesses the power of play to spark environmental solutions to problems like pollution, deforestation and climate change.
Yes, blood and tears have been shed by more than a few tiny tots at this hands-on learning space. The curriculum is kind of loosey-goosey — or, as Harada puts it in his latest TED talk, intended to “let their imaginations run wild” — because he wants his gaggle of students to toss the checklists, study guides and anything else that could turn them into “memorizing machines,” he says. And despite (or maybe because of) the chaos of temper tantrums and scissor mishaps, Harada seems to be doing something right. One of his students’ projects — a remote-controlled robot that detects plastic in the ocean — nabbed the Jane Goodall Roots & Shoots Award for Environmental Technology.
You don’t need a Ph.D. to get your hands dirty in the world of science à la MythBusters.
Harada is no stranger to tinkering for the fun of it. As a kid, Harada grew up roaming and milling around in two worlds: the projects of Paris and the seaside of Niigata, Japan. He actually honed his creativity within an industrial factory that was also his home from ages 4 to 11. The Paris construction site became his stomping grounds, where the “inside of the house was more dangerous than the streets,” he says. Instead of toy trucks, he fiddled with screws. Rather than plastic soldiers, he played with plywood. And he still imbues meaning into these manufactured materials: “Everything is alive. It tells a story. My life is no more valuable than a sheet of metal, the rain that falls on me, the fleeting life of a cloud,” Harada tells OZY. He talks in anecdotes, eyes closed, ruminating on his father’s animist Shinto lessons.
Now, as an inventor, environmentalist and educator, Harada wears several hats. He’s dabbled in disciplines as varied as graphic design, architecture, animation and construction in places as diverse as France, London and Kenya. And it all stems from his own childhood as a gushing science geek; he learned English by wading through dense terms in math and physics books. He’s a seasoned Dumpster diver too, constantly hoarding possible materials for his latest creations.
Most important, Harada always learned far more on his own than he did in the classroom. This fact has inspired one of his biggest lessons: You don’t need a Ph.D. to get your hands dirty in the world of science à la MythBusters. The idea has roots in the global maker movement, which places 3-D printers, robotics, microprocessors and e-textiles in the hands of kids, going far beyond the stodgy set of blocks and putty. Be warned: This isn’t your grandma’s regular ol’ glitter and glue. This chemistry lab meets art studio meets car shop is the future of science education, says Harada.
Deep into our conversation, the next class of giggling students pours into the maker space, hammers at the ready. “You can make anything you want!” says 9-year-old Max, proudly displaying his dragon formed by Popsicle sticks and controlled by Bluetooth chip. Clearly, you don’t need years of grinding lab research or corporate funding to invent something incredible.