WikiSeats webpage

The WikiSeat website

About a month ago, I took the time to chat with WikiSeat co-founder Nicolas Weidinger, as a follow-up to his own post about his work in Oct 2012. His tiny organization designs and manufactures three-pronged modules called “catalysts” that facilitate the easy and innovation creation of chairs. What started as a college project for him has turned into a nationwide movement with programs in dozens of schools. In this interview, we found out what WikiSeats are all about — and how his basic chair structures catalyze making and creating!

The story of WikiSeats and its growing impact, in Nic’s words:

What was the impetus for sharing the first 100 Catalysts? Did you ever imagine you would end up using them to educate high school students?

The first catalyst I built was the result of a mistake. I was studying industrial design and working on a project at Ohio State University. A week into the quarter, I decided I wanted to build a chair because every designer builds a chair at some point in their life, and I wanted to start it and finish it in one night. I got to my apartment and took three parts of a window screen frame, lashed it together with some nylon rope and cut-up bike inner tubes, and put some plastic trash bags over the top of it. I sat on it, but I wasn’t about to put all my weight on it. It was pretty unstable and wobbling all over the place.
I realized that there had to be some more structural support and I wasn’t getting that with rope. I decided to try and weld something together. My dad found three threaded rods, and we came up with the idea of building a jig. So we used the jig and welded together a few catalysts. So I took all the same materials from the first seat plus the metal bracket, and the thing worked. This whole process took a week out of the ten week quarter. So I thought, now what?

If I wanted to build a seat and I couldn’t do it on my own without this bracket, do other people want to build seats? Would other people build seats if I gave them these brackets? So I built ten of these brackets and gave them out — mostly to people in my class, and I said “If you want to do this, please finish it because it’s for a school project.” I gave them out, and everybody made seats before the deadline.

I did it again for my senior thesis, and the plan was to scale it up by ten. I carried a bag around and handed catalysts out and told people to “build a chair!” I put tags on the catalysts that said “For more information, visit wikiseat.org.” So, half of the project was the seat-building, and the other half of it was the wiki. I wanted to create a community where people could solve this one specific problem of getting the legs even and balanced, and maybe other things like materials and how to set up a jig.

I was working with my former high school shop teacher on this, and he said to all his students, “Here are these things. If you want to do this project, you can take a catalyst. If you don’t want to do it, we can find something else for you to do.” All but one of the students in his class built seats. They were super-stoked because we had a gallery show at the end of the quarter and they all got to put their seats in the show.

Do you think they took on the challenge because it was a reasonable enough challenge?

Yes. It contains a very specific starting point with rigid constraints. You know exactly where you’re going to start, but beyond that, it’s complete freedom. The catalyst took away all the uncertainty around the framework of the chair but also  challenged a lot of students. A few started to ask, “Why does it have to be a chair? Why are we building chairs in English class?” So they’ve starting to challenge the teacher and the challenge itself, and one of the students wrote a blog post saying “I get the point of the project, but chairs are really limiting.” Her teacher, Sean Wheeler, posted this on Twitter and said “I think this kid’s onto something.”

Do you have plans for other ways that the catalyst can be used, or for new catalysts that can be used for new things?

After the first hundred people were given the opportunity to build seats, I spoke with the shop class of my former high school. I challenged them, saying “You’ve seen what a chair catalyst does. What’s another catalyst? What can you build?” I posed that question again to Mr. Wheeler’s class after they built seats. I have no idea what another catalyst might look like, but there are a lot of them out there. Arduino, for example, is a catalyst for a lot of things in the world of electronics.

There’s huge potential for this in education, specifically. The WikiSeat itself isn’t remotely about the seat. It’s about having the experience of experimenting with structure and new materials. So I think, rather than asking the question, “What is the physical thing that we want the catalyst for,” I think it’s “What experience do we want to catalyze? What mindset, what thinking, what ideologies do we want to catalyze, and then how can that be expressed through making?”

I know the class at Lakewood HS has used WikiSeats to cross-pollinate knowledge in their study of literature. In what other ways have you seen this, or envision seeing this, happen in other subject areas?

Sean Wheeler is an absolutely amazing person and teacher. The first time Sean contacted me, he said “I saw your project on BoingBoing. I really like it and want to do it with my students.” I was like, “You want to do this in English class? Ok, go for it! All the resources and information are online. If you’d like I can build catalysts and send them to you.” If you read his first blog post, he didn’t know what was going to happen, but he did a really good tying it in with Emerson’s “Self Reliance.”

After that experience, we knew that it could work really well in English. This year we put out a call to action for other teachers. We now have 103 teachers signed up to do this in math, science, design, literature, engineering, kindergarten, and an undergraduate pedagogy class.
There’s a history teacher who integrated a couple of really good examples. Two connected concepts are resource scarcity and technology availability. The history teacher compared it to different cultures around the world. When the Mongols found out that there’s a fish-gut protein to make bows, they took over the world. What materials do you have to make a seat?

There’s a lot of potential in math and geometry, especially, because the WikiSeat is a very rigid structure, but the process for making one is very organic. The metal shop I use has a 1/4″ tolerance when cutting, which I don’t care about, but it means that the catalysts are off in these different directions. So every catalyst is completely different. I think there’s some value to that because it’s not an intended feature, but it is a feature. A lot of people assume that it’s going to be perfect, but it’s not. If you build your seat accoring to the geometry you get with your unique catalyst, your seat’s going to be crooked. So you have to adjust and using very precise math may not get you there, but you still have to use math.

But adjusting is part of the design process anyway!

It seems to me like the bottleneck for the WikiSeats project is the production and distribution of the catalysts. Is there any way that you can get the students to make their own catalysts? Maybe in a way that doesn’t use welding?

So there are two questions. One of them is: are there different ways to make catalysts? The other is: are there ways to get students to make their own catalysts? I’ve thought about doing injection-molded plastic, but you need a lot of resources. 3D printing is very time-consuming. We were thinking of 3D printing and casting them but I’ve yet to find the foundry to do that at.

The way that they’re constructed is 90 degree angle iron, and then 120 degree angle iron. If I could find a good source for 120 degree angle iron together, we can rivet them.

All of the information is on Instructables. If anybody wants to experiment with different catalysts, that would be so cool.

The other part of that question is do we have to build them all here in San Francisco? Sean Wheeler’s friend is a welder so he built all the catalysts for him.

Materials, shipping, and fair wage for a welder means six dollars per catalyst. I think it’s silly to ship angle iron all over the country, so the goal is to find local welders near each school to build the catalysts and have a closed loop, with the welder coming into the class and talk about the process of welding.

The coolest thing ever would be to have one class of students build seats, and then build the catalysts for the next class.

Ideally, there should be no need for WikiSeat as an entity or organization, because all of it should be locally sourced.

In the “Problems” exercise, you ask students to identify and articulate a reason for building their WikiSeat. What do you think is important about being conscious of your purpose when working on a project?

Purpose gives something meaning, and if you don’t know why you’re doing a worksheet or some exercise in math, what’s the point? There’s no real good context for most of the activities we do in school, but by framing the seat with relevance, it provides a lens for the students to look at the whole picture.

This project isn’t about school, getting grades, or even building a seat. It’s about what it is in your life that this is addressing. It could be a very real problem like “the dining room table broke and we need another chair.” One student said “I’m afraid of the dark,” so for the next 9 or 10 weeks that girl is going to be able to address that problem with something tangible. Being afraid of the dark isn’t something that school deals with, but this was something that was important to her and this is a way to think about it.

What is one WikiSeat that stands out for you in terms of its originality or ingenuity?

There are a lot of them. Originally when I set up the wiki I wanted people to share ideas and inspire each other, but most students have looked at it to see what other people have done so they don’t duplicate that, because they wanted to do something different and unique. Novelty is a really difficult thing to come across, but having kids express that and begin to think about what that means is awesome.

Editor’s Note: WikiSeats, and Nic at its helm (along with managing his own full-time work at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, CA), continues to grow in impact. It initiates good questions, relevant challenges, real learning, and community building. Sean Wheeler, so inspired by his experiences in making seats with his English students — and pushing that hands-on work even further, is in the midst of working with the powers-that-be in Cleveland to design and develop a new school, focused and centered on making. Perhaps all students will be making their own seats, come September!

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