Making learning into child’s play

Dr. Karen Kaun, founder and president of Makeosity, Inc., an incubator for products and businesses by and for youth, writes about her company's belief that kids learn - especially STEM skills - through hands-on creation.
September 16, 2015

This week, I asked Dr. Karen Kaun, founder and president of Makeosity, Inc., to write about her company and philosophy. Karen is a maker, doer, and innovator who believes that kids learn — especially STEM skills — through hands-on creation. Makeosity is an incubator for young student entrepreneurs to help them hatch their ideas and thrive. Here’s her take.

You are the child of a world-renowned female scientist who, unbeknownst to her, has been working for a corrupt corporation whose waste products are contributing to the decimation of the planet. In order to escape the corporation’s control, your mother puts you into a cryogenic deep freeze in a secret factory. Following an event of apocalyptic proportion, you awaken in the factory years later. Your only chance for escape is to build a device that will generate enough energy to repower the factory to open the doors to your release. Your mother has left behind a “CAD pad” that provides instructions for building a flashlight and other mechanisms using computer-assisted design software that will set you on your way. Building each mechanism becomes progressively more difficult as the CAD instructions are gradually diminished. To complete building the final energy generator and set yourself free, you must use all the CAD skills you acquired without support of any kind.

This is the opening scenario of a story for a game built by a group of teenagers, four girls and one boy, in four weeks as a proof of concept for the Global Learning competition. The teens were hired by Makeosity, Inc. an incubator for products and businesses by and for youth. The task was to to build the game, to demonstrate how young people’s learning accelerates when the focus was not on basic skills acquisition (the goal of this XPRIZE competition), but on higher order thinking. What is extraordinary about the game is not just the level of detail, amount of 3D objects and animations that the teens were able to create in such a short time span to teach their peers how to design in CAD; but how the teens’ skills evolved, from beginner and intermediate to expert, during the design and development process. They write about it on their blog JAVAK, which is pronounced JAVA – K, each letter standing for an initial of their names Jenny, Arun, Violet, Ashley and Kiana.

Much has been written about introducing video games to schools in order to leverage the elements of game play, including rules, role-playing and rewards to motive and engage students. Schools, especially those in urban settings, face great hurdles around student motivation and resilience. Dropout rates are unsettling. Moving beyond the notion of playing video games in schools, what would it look like if students designed their own learning experiences? How would this move them from passive consumer to architects of their own education? What would these experiences look like? Would they include game-like elements to solve problems, a kind of gamification of learning? Would they include play? How would this change education? What would students learn along the way and how would it benefit them today?

When you visit the JAVAK blog, you’ll notice play, lots and lots of play, even in the professional environment of the Autodesk office where team JAVAK met twice a week. There was also a great deal of silliness and laughter; yet through all of it, the team managed to stick through a tight schedule of deliverables that they defined themselves at the beginning of the process. How team JAVAK was able to produce such a professional product is possibly a combination of these factors. They were able to define their own deliverables – what they believed they could achieve in the allotted time. The motivation to stick to the deliverable schedule was their own. No one from Makeosity or Autodesk pressured the teens or questioned their methods (including chugging Sour Path slushies before settling down to work). And though the teens felt their own brand of pressure to deliver, their motto was Hakuna Mata, “no worries,” which carried them through software crashes, bugs, and steep learning curves of new software described in their blog.

“I started off on this project as a complete beginner in all of Autodesk’s programs. Maya? That’s a name. Unity? I’m all for a united effort! Fusion 360? Guess we’re fusing 360 different things together. However, just after the first day of work, I was well on the way to becoming a super model-er using Maya and the design team was whipping out some realistic models of ladders, teleporters, and robots. ”

The teens learned through their failures, maintained their composure through humor and camaraderie, and their expertise accelerated. And their ability to overcome the challenges as a team created immense pride of ownership, which is summed up in a final blog entry.

“Being able to see a full game that worked and accomplished its purpose with an added feature of audio (woot woot) is a rush of pride and true realization that everything we see before our eyes is done by the five of us. Every model, CAD, motion, and animation were all made by us. This opportunity was one of the most unique experiences in my life and one where the team had the honor of meeting various individuals who are an inspiration and outlet to the larger technological world, offering a peek into the future of technology and business.”

JAVAK’s game has been nominated for display at Autodesk’s University’s Exhibit Hall as an exemplar of the theme “The Future is Yours to Make.”

The lesson learned: Dream. Do. Learn. Smile. Not very different from the way kids play.

Meet Karen and see some of the Makeosity projects at Sandbox West in LA, October 12 and 13. Register at Email me at

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