The ACTLab Tool Box



The Convergent Media Collective has roots that go back decades, although a recently formed group, some of the core members are part of a movement called “ACTLab”. ACTLab started as a program at the University of Texas at Austin where students were assigned to “Make Stuff, Take Risks and Be Awesome”. It was founded by Sandy Stone, aka the ACTLab Goddess, who’s gnarly background provided a diverse base from which students could explore and Make Stuff.

As the program grew a slew of “ACTLabbers” were created and now are around the world tearing up the creative scene.

About 3 years ago joey decided to create “The ACTLab Toolbox” , a document that covers some of the core traits of the ACTLab movement. He shared the document with as many ACTLabbers as possible to gain feedback and the document became a communal archive.

So below you will see the document, it is still not done, but shown in the state it was last left. It is a hope of joey’s, that ACTLabbers and DTCM’ers will continually add to the document and continue the tradition of “Making stuff, Taking Risks and Being Awesome”.


The ACTLab Pedagogy Tool Box

The ACTLab Motto:

“Make Stuff, Take Risks, Be Awesome!”

-Make Stuff: The Term “Make Stuff” originates from a core dilemma of our field, how do we give ourselves the permission to create opened projects and research? The idea of “Make Stuff” is to give the creator/student/professor the ability to feel that anything is possible, that the key is to Make, to build, to practice, to craft and to demonstrate. By “Making Stuff” they are demonstrating their abilities to think abstractly and practically through the act of “making” and creating artifacts.

-Take Risks: Taking risks involves not only taking risks with your project but with your abilities and learning. The student pushes his or her abilities by taking a risk into either new technology or comfort level with performance so that they expand their expertise. Taking risks also improves students self confidence and reliance, in that they now know that they are competent and can be good at what they do and create.

-Be Awesome: The notion of Be Awesome originated from a conversation between two ACTLabbers discussing what Making Stuff and Taking Risks meant. One of the ACTLabbers felt that Making Stuff and Taking Risks was not enough; in addition the work you did had to be Awesome. Awesome having a duality. First and foremost it had to be Awesome to you, secondly it had to be Awesome to your audience. The projects and work you do should have resonance.

The Classes:

-Usually a range of open ended courses are offered based on either a theme or happening (often technology or theoretical oriented). The idea of the course titles is to spark interest from individuals while also leaving room for growth of the titles meaning throughout the course.

-The reason for open and sometimes ambiguous course titles is to facilitate an open call to all types of people. The attraction of people from varied backgrounds is necessary to create new ideas and projects that are creative and innovative.

In Class:

-Movements: Movements are a way of engaging the class in a group exercise that will not only mentally engage, but physically engage the participants. The results tend to be that students create a closer bond to each other, as well as with the professor. Movement engages many more faculties and senses than speech or writing, and then the meaning-making that’s been engaged by movement spills over into other academic skills.

-Demo: The idea of Demo at the beginning of class is to give the students the ability to show Their Work and ideas of current events, projects they have seen and theories they are currently trying to sort out. The Demo’s pedagogical purpose is to be an ice-breaker to get people talking and beginning to engage with each other. Non-traditional team building is a major goal of the ACTLab, so Demo times help lay a foundation on which to build deeper engagement and acquire real team-building skills over the semester.

There are several ways to do Demo. The standard actlab Demo is designed to encourage newbies to get over any shyness they may have about showing their stuff. As such, it’s a gentle exercise. Another way to do Demo — for example, in advanced classes — is in a more competitive frame, where more value is given to originality, technical skill, and just plain edginess.

-In Class Exercises: In class exercises range from technology centers (i.e. computer building, programing, electronics), Puppet Days (sock or paper bag puppets) and more recently iphone video days/audio days. All of these exercises emphasize play as a key component, these exercises are for students and faculty alike to feel at ease with the tasks at hand because they are just for practice. They should be presented in such a way as to give everyone the feeling that “messing up” or “failing” is part of the process of the exercise. We don’t emphasize the importance of play in human learning (and its notable absence in all contemporary accounts of “proper” education) until later in the semester.

-Discussion of Core Readings. We assign core readings of “foundational text (i.e. foundation in relationship to the content)” as a way to reach into our subconsciousness and bring discussion of personal and communal ideas to the table that can then be used to Make Stuff.

-Presentation Day: There are usually 3 projects due within the semester of an ACTLab course. Each project has a presentation day. The presentation day is not just about showing your project. It is about seeing others and engaging with each other about the projects and ideas that come from the project. The presentations are also emphasized to contain some type of pitch or demonstration attitude that gives the project an “aura” and space to stand from. This practice gives students and faculty alike real world practice to presenting their work outside of the classroom. In addition to the student and faculty of the course, outside participants are usually encourage to show up and see the projects.

Out of Class:

Office Hours: ACTLab office hours are not your ordinary office hours. They are a

communal hours that offer both the students and the faculty to share their experiences with making stuff. Office hours are also a time to try out new skills or to think out new ideas or interests. This is also a time and space for people to plan out their projects with guidance from the faculty and especially from other students.

Office hours can be a time for collaboration and a time for learning by all people involved in the program.

Semester Parties: Semester parties are a place for ACTLabbies to do two things, 1) celebrate each other’s work and 2) a time to ask each other about projects. The first purpose is to celebrate the learning, expansion of skills, completion of projects by all participants. Its always a good way to celebrate each other’s accomplishment. The second reason is to give students a chance to informally discuss and positively critique each others projects. A laid back atmosphere provides a non confrontational and non institutional way to talk to each other.

Field Trips: The Field Trips are informal expeditions by various groups of the ACTLab to check out events, happenings and spaces. In the past these expeditions ranged from going to record shops in a group to check out the new tunes, to visiting other universities to see what kind of work they have been up to.

The Spaces:

The Classroom:

The Offices: This space is set up for parallel play and work as well as collaboration. The office is set up with individual work stations as well as collaborative spaces. The office also has other things for students to play with or to work with. Examples include but are not limited to: Lego’s sets, video games, books (text books, theory, picture, children’s books), desktop computers, arduino boards, computer parts, and circuit boards.

The Geek Havens: Geek Havens have up to this point have been in the professor’s home, ie Dr Sandy Stone and Dr Joseph Lopez’s home. The Geek Haven is a place to nurture relationships and students. Its a space for a “familia” type experience. “Familia” in this sense is like what is seen in Hispanic culture, where everyone in is invited into the home and shown great hospitality. In Spanish, the term is “convivir”, literally translated into co-living is also another way to explain the feeling fostered in a Geek Haven.

The Geek Haven not only nurtures students but gives them time to practice real life experiences, such as cooking and grocery shopping. Other experiences are for students to try out new things, such as new types of food, watching new films, listening to high fidelity music systems, or building desk top computers.


-Facilitation rather then Dictation: The purpose of the professor is to facilitate the students inquires into theory and practice. The purpose of the student is to question process, theory and practice.

-The focus of the ACTLab is to facilitate new through the students own personal ideas and theories, which is then augmented with core theory and practices.

-Documentation: Process and Theory should be documented in order to build a common understanding of each participant’s progression and understanding of the material.

-Technology is a tool which interfaces with our bodies. Meaning we are not bound to technology, technology is bound to us. Our cultural and social relationship with technology is one that is developed over time and is a process.

-Participation through parallel play and competitive co-operation: This philosophy emphasizes the need for each other to be competitive with themselves first and foremost. Meaning that your projects and ideas must drive you in order to participate with the class. Once you are driven you can then play and interact with others at a level that no longer requires you to feel you are trying to make something that is better or comparable to others, but rather unique stuff that will add to the discourse being created by the course.

CC 3.0 2011 ACTLab

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