When I was in my first year of high school, I remember my art teacher saying, “You can’t teach art”. At the time, that made a lot of sense to me. Art is subjective, there is no immediate right or wrong and being creative is a personality trait, not a skill, or so I thought. That stayed with me for a long time, right up until I went to university where, in the first week, we were given a class on being an “ideas person”. This was odd to me. You can’t make someone an ideas person, you simply have ideas, or you don’t, surely? Now as software-goliath, Autodesk states, “our thing is to teach innovation”, that thinking has been thrown into question all over again.
“Autodesk is all about making things, we always have been”. Those are the words of Vice President of Education at Autodesk, Randy Swearer, as we sit down in a quiet room away from the constant bustle of bodies that fill the Sands Expo for the annual Autodesk University (AU) event in Las Vegas.
Along with robots making cocktails, Stormtroopers and DJs at 10am, innovation and the future of design were huge at AU from the unique projects on stage at the Innovation Forums to Autodesk’s strides in generative design providing the perfect pathway to additive manufacturing.
Six month’s in, Randy is still a newbie to the company when we meet but with a lengthy career in the education sector at institutions like University of Philadelphia and University of Texas on his resume, and a passion that’s evident when he speaks about Autodesk’s plans for education, he’s confident about making a change.
'Innovation' is the word of the week at AU, and Randy is singing the same tune when it comes to education whether that’s in high schools or universities and doing so in a way that works with a new generation of digital natives to create meaningful and fruitful curriculums.
“If you’re not passionate about something, you’re going to be unhappy and you wont last,” Randy explains. “A lot of people are thinking about the relationship between making and learning which is one of the areas that I’m really passionate about. How does this new maker culture and disruption in education affect each other and what are the results of that in the classroom? How will that change the way universities and high schools operate in the next 20 years?”
In the 3D technologies industry, education is talked about a lot. But there’s a problem. Adoption isn’t fast and even with a 3D printer or software in the classroom, there are teachers who, without proper support, are still learning about this technology, lacking the confidence to integrate things like CAD and 3D printing, into their lesson plan - something Randy describes as “tragic”. But just as 3D printing is forcing us to change the way we think about designing, educators have to adapt to a new way of teaching.
“When we think about our curricula and going into classrooms to help students learn, we’re thinking about ‘how do you teach innovation through making?’ and that’s different than teaching making,” Randy says. “If you go to our Design Academy and you look through the curricula and the projects, they’re heavily influenced by design thinking innovation. Innovation is a leveller.”
Autodesk has got stuck into several projects that take a different approach to learning including self-described New York City-based ‘disruptive platform for social learning and entrepreneurialism’, Makeosity. As part of the project, a group of students aged 12 and 13, designed an electronic ‘Energy Scooter’ using Fusion 360, which caught the eye of President Obama who invited the young designers to present the scooter at the White House. Even more unconventional, Randy was also on the board of game-based high school, Quest to Learn. A ‘game-based’ education concept might seem like the complete opposite of what you would expect from a school but by using game theory where failure is a necessary part of the learning experience, the school has won several awards in its two years.
Randy comments: “The students are so fun, passionate, engaged, they are thinking fundamentally differently about who they are and how they're going to affect and change the world but they're often way ahead of the teachers. So we've got to create a world where they can play.”
Scooter designed by students at Makeosity.
One way Autodesk is looking to change this is with ‘Teachers in Residence’. Much like its ‘Artists in Residence’ program at Autodesk’s uber trendy Pier 9 home in San Francisco, this new hub of creativity – or ‘temple of making’ as Randy describes – will be based in Boston and incorporate both teachers in residence and artists in residence in a museum-like warehouse where people can witness 3D printing, advanced robotics and traditional crafts happening right in front of them.
Autodesk also recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of its free software for the education sector initiative. This means that students and educators all over the world can benefit from over 100 professional software products like Fusion 360, AutoCAD and Maya and use them in the classroom to gain valuable digital skills.
“In terms of projects and adoption around the world, I think we have had more influence in this one year than we could have in one year in the prior ten because the barrier to access is now gone. Students can download it, play with it, do whatever they want and they do it by the millions,” Randy says.
Project from Autodesk Design Academy
So can you teach innovation? Like myself in the first year of university after living in the comfort of things I had been led to believe as concrete from age 11, education has to be open to change. Not everyone has the ability or even desire to be a maker/inventor/tech-genius but the fact that the world is waking up to realise that textbooks, whiteboards and one computer at the back of the classroom, just doesn’t reflect the time we currently live in, is a positive move in the right direction.
“If there's one thing that educators need to remember, one word, it's integration,” Randy concludes. “The new proposition in education is not about individual discipline, it's about integrating together multiple disciplines into real world situations. And now we're in the additive manufacturing world where all these different composites and pieces can come together in organic learning shapes and make incredibly new pathways for students - what an amazing time to be in education as much as it is to be in technology.”