How the YouTube Classroom Is Teaching Teens to Make Space Watermelons

Inside the world of young makers tapping online resources to engineer their own learning.
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Newcomers attend a coding workshop at an Orlando maker faire.

Newcomers attend a coding workshop at an Orlando maker faire. 

When I first meet Laurence Allen, he is sitting two seats down from me on a cross-country flight from Boston to San Francisco, and I'm worried he might have a bomb. With an acid heaviness in my stomach, I eye a contraption on my seatmate's tray table. It's about a foot tall, made from pieces of what look like CD-ROM trays screwed roughly into a cube, with wires and flashing lights trailing behind.

I saw him reach into a backpack under his seat and take this object out about 20 minutes into the flight. Now he's tinkering with it, swaying to the rhythm in his earbuds as I try to quash horrified fantasies of mid-flight explosions.

In my most casual voice, I say: "Excuse me, I have to know. What is that?"

This is when he introduces himself: Laurence, middle school student, 14 years old. It;s not a bomb, he says, answering the question I didn't ask. It's a homemade 3-D printer that makes small items out of chocolate.

I'm about to launch into any number of follow-up questions—why chocolate, what do you make with that, how do you know how to build a 3-D printer, you're only 14 years old—but that's when he pulls out the nuclear fusor.

He's grinning when he does it; I think he knows it will get a reaction. Scientists use fusors like this one—silvery, oblong, futuristic—to create small-scale reactions for advanced chemistry experiments, he explains. He and his friend Ben made the fusor together over Christmas, to see if they could. Allen doesn't mention until later that Ben is 19 years old, or that they met through Ben's YouTube channel, or that Ben builds X-ray machines for fun and is going to intern at SpaceX, Elon Musk's space exploration company. He just spends the rest of the flight talking my ear off about how much cool stuff they made, and in some cases blew up, liquefied, or soldered, together.

On the plane I can already see Allen is out of the ordinary, but it's not until later, when I've spent more time with him and his menagerie of gadgets, that I'll grasp just how far his creations go beyond chemistry and engineering. He's part of a widespread community of "makers," self-taught tinkerers who rebuild mundane items in inventive and often whimsical ways—and share tricks of their trade online. Young makers like Allen aren't just reimagining the physical things around them. As they advance in making, they are turning to digital communities like YouTube to take apart conventional methods of learning and put them back together, new.

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Several months later, I visit Allen at his family's home in San Rafael, California, overlooking San Francisco Bay—regional host of the yearly Maker Faire, an outdoor showcase and celebration that drew some 125,000 attendees this May. Allen is noticeably taller than the last time we met, and his red hair sticks up in the back, short on the sides. His room is a jumble of tools, drills, and bags of chemicals, with drawers full of adaptors, a gas mask, a soldering iron. Fishing through the detritus, he shows off a 3-D printed prosthetic hand he designed, plans for the electric skateboard he's making for a client to take to Burning Man—after a friend of his mother's asked for one, he's gotten several requests—and a remote control boat he made out of coins, CD-ROM parts, rubber bands, and a ruler.

Allen takes after his dad in all this noodling; Trip Allen is a chemical engineer who started making in graduate school. Trip has long supported his son's interests, starting with basement do-it-yourself projects and then graduating to technical welding courses at local maker spaces—workshops where makers can access physical tools and training. As the younger Allen built ever-more complex gadgets, he increasingly needed skills beyond what he was learning in school. So, he turned to the Internet for answers.

At first Allen frequented tutorial sites like Instructables, which gets around 30 million visits a month from tinkerers seeking skills like laser cutting and woodworking. Later he began to draw from more diverse resources, cobbling together ideas and techniques from videos, forums, open-source file sharing, and research papers into a method all his own. "If you want to learn something, you Google it," he shrugs, almost confused to be questioned about the impulse to seek answers online.

Often the first search result is a YouTube video, which connects Allen to other makers documenting their own efforts. He can mix his ideas with their expertise and contact other users with questions if a project goes awry. "There are YouTubers that will just freely answer your questions," he says. "If you can find one with a sub[scriber] count under 2,000, then you can find a video on XYZ, some chemistry thing, and say, 'This didn't work for me' and troubleshoot."

Cath Ellis, an associate dean of education at the University of New South Wales in Australia, points out that what Allen is doing is really a version of something old, modified for the virtual era. His exchange with the YouTube community amounts to a crowdsourced form of procedural learning—academic shorthand for learning a skill by practicing a series of concrete steps. Web videos have greatly expanded the reach of this learning style, Ellis says. She should know: She focused her own research on the changing dynamics of online learning after teaching herself how to knit through YouTube and on Ravelry, an online "knit and crochet community" that hit seven million registered users this year. "It used to be your grandmother sitting next to you on the sofa," she says. "Now it's a kindly woman who takes the trouble of recording herself knitting and posts it for free."

Procedural learning—baking bread with a family member, learning choreography from a music video, mastering a skill via an apprenticeship—has always involved demonstrations. But YouTube tweaks the "where" and "when" of that conventional process by adding the element of on-demand culture to offer sources that can be played and replayed at any time. This feature combines with classic procedural learning to merge "the very best features of reading a book with the very best features of a live demonstrations," Ellis says. Readers can repeat passages in a book until they've grasped a concept; a demonstration allows watchers to absorb a process in action, instead of relying on static diagrams. Video tutorials—whether on knitting or building prosthetic hands—bring both elements together.

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Allen and I pause the house tour to make some unusual cookies—essentially a mix of butter, sugar, and homemade rocket fuel. The point of these desserts is to bake them, light their wicks, and watch them disappear. The rocket-fuel concoction—a recipe Allen created based on experiments popularized by big name YouTubers—helps the sugar burn, Allen explains, offering me safety goggles. "Nothing bad's going to happen, but you feel more science-y," he says. "I wear the white coat for the same reason." We prepare the mixture on his porch, folding chocolate chips in with the explosive powder and struggling to remember not to lick the dough—which smells delicious—off our fingers. In the end, the flame eats through the fuse quickly and soundlessly; with a bang and billows of smoke, the cookies are gone, leaving a burnt spot in their place.

Allen tells me the rocket fuel cookies were inspired by similar experiments posted on a website where chemistry enthusiasts share text files, but that he figured out the ingredient ratios on his own. This Web sharing is key to his making, in which independent projects grow from a process that's fundamentally communal. Ellis points out in her research that as we learn new skills, our brains don't treat every piece of new information equally; instead, we filter it by quality and importance. For best results, that filtering should be chaperoned by peers slightly further up the learning staircase, a point most famously made by social scientist Etienne Wenger. Wenger coined the term "communities of practice" to describe the kind of informal learning driven by a shared passion—like the communities Allen has found on YouTube and other Web forums.

Research has pinpointed potential in virtual communities that learn and teach simultaneously. One study of a website developed by the National Cancer Institute found that community engagement increased 62 percent after implementation of an interactive forum—and that the majority of posts focused on asking for, and offering advice from, other users. Another study, widely cited in the virtual learning literature, found a strong correlation between student satisfaction with online courses, their perceived learning, and their interaction with their peers.

For some makers, virtual communities of practice have become real-life ones. Allen has visited the Instructables office in San Francisco, where other brick-and-mortar maker spaces, like TechShop, can draw over a thousand regular members each season. He's also taken a design workshop hosted by makers from the website Meetup.com nearby. And perhaps most crucially for his own work, he's become good friends with Ben Nowack, the YouTuber mentor he was visiting when we met on the plane. Discovering Nowack's YouTube channel was a turning point. "Ben showed me someone my age was doing this stuff as well," he says. In Nowack's case, "this stuff" includes making his own iron forge and building a motorboat out of a weed eater engine and kayak for an audience of more than 12,000 subscribers—the projects that eventually led him to SpaceX.

The key thing about YouTube, Trip Allen says, is "every single one of those videos has a person on the other end with a telephone." When his son started watching Nowack's videos, Trip Allen e-mailed Nowack asking if he might like to become an informal mentor, and Nowack immediately agreed. Allen flew to Boston, where Nowack lives, and the two hit if off immediately. They spent their holidays trolling the local junkyard for parts, performing explosive chemistry experiments—and building the 3-D chocolate printer.

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In the afternoon, Allen brings me outside to the garden to check on what he calls his "space watermelons," seedlings first germinated at a very high altitude in weather balloons. He got the idea after seeing a YouTube video about weather balloon experiments and decided to engineer his own. "We got to 108,000 feet," he says of his homemade balloons. "I thought that was pretty good." By now, the seedlings have returned to Earth, thriving next to more mundane vegetables.

Since launching the watermelons, Allen's digital learning has become full-time. Last fall he enrolled in Stanford Online High School, an application-only, accredited online school associated with Stanford University. Its students sign onto an Adobe platform to learn together—remotely—in a virtual classroom; class time rarely goes toward lectures and instead focuses on group activities and discussion.

SOHS might seem like a great fit, given Allen's background. But while he says it's the first time in his life he's been truly challenged—he's working the standard 50 hours a week, or maybe more—something still doesn't feel right. He misses being able to fit his learning exactly to his interests, instead of having to follow someone else's curriculum.

"I feel my future doesn't rely on academics quite as much as it does on continuing to make things and following my entrepreneurial interests," he says. Instead, after his first semester, he spent much of this spring staying up until the wee hours working on maker projects. Since starting at SOHS, he's fully automated his room with the coding program Arduino, including a touchscreen wall made out of old VCR remotes and a hacked and stripped Wii. The joy he gets from his projects leaves him wondering if testing for a GED would allow him to focus more intentionally on his goals. For now, YouTube and other maker mainstays still offer educational resources that let him learn in ways he can't anywhere else—even online high school.

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At the end of our visit, Allen insists he on making me a present to take home: a speaker. He considers incorporating some of the elements he's used to build a bone conduction speaker and wants to show me how it works.

Normal speakers amplify sound vibrations and pump them through the air to the ear as waves; bone conduction speakers pump vibrations through the bones of the listener for a personalized auditory experience. Allen plugs the gadget into my phone while I pop a CD-ROM motor in my mouth, holding it steady between my teeth. The chords of "Guns and Ships" from Hamilton pump, tinny but unmistakable, through my jaws and into my ears.

Allen ultimately decides that the bone conduction speaker would be too complicated for now and settles on a simpler Bluetooth model. He runs back and forth to his room gathering parts, but things go wrong early on. There's one problem with the battery, then the voltage. When he finally manages to connect the speaker to my phone, no music bubbles forth. "There no notable voltage coming out of here," he mumbles.

If Allen wanted to, he could easily pause here to jump on YouTube in search of videos walking him through the process of making a speaker out of a Coke can, a plastic cup, a Pringles container, or a Sriracha bottle. He could message a few makers to help him figure out what's going wrong. Or he could switch gears to tutorials on building headphones; maybe a radio ballpoint pen with bone conduction technology that allows users to bite the tip and listen to music—enough options to keep a young maker in projects for decades.

These days, though, Allen resorts to that kind of search much less frequently. He's comfortable working through problems on his own. "I've rarely done something someone else's way," he tells me.

The sun is setting, and I have a long drive home, but Allen is still stumped. He decides to throw together—using a battery and stripped flash drive—a portable phone charger as a consolation prize. This time, it works. As I leave, I see him go back to work. He picks up the speaker and continues to tinker, undeterred.

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