Meet Oren: Tinkerer extraordinaire


Oren Connell is the resident expert at all things Maker at ARS

Oren Connell is an educator, a maker, and a sailor. You may have seen him around the ARS Makerspace, teaching people how to use equipment. He has been tinkering with things from a young age, and still uses that mentality today to guide everything he does.

“I grew up on a small ranch in rural Montana so we had cows and farm equipment and stuff and my dad would fix stuff, and my mom would fix stuff, so I saw that as kind of a way to approach things,” said Connell. “So instead of a car breaking and then taking it to someone to repair it they would fix it themselves.”

His interest in visual problem solving led him to study graphic design and fine arts at Montana State University. He worked there for a couple of years before moving to Texas and getting a job as a web designer and developer at an ad agency.

“That was fun for a little while because I got to do interesting projects and learn a lot of stuff, but in the back of my mind I was always interested in education,” said Connell.

So, he got fed up with his advertising job and decided to quit.

“I stopped learning things. Advertising, the job that I had, was no longer engaging. The projects were boring, I was doing the same stuff over and over and it was horrible. And so instead of finding another job in that career, I decided it was a good time to change.”

After traveling to South America for half a year, he came back to Austin and decided that he wanted to become an educator without going back to school for it.

“I wanted to see if I could become an educator just by doing it, without having somebody teach me in the traditional way.”

Connell taught at a Montessori school, the Austin Tinkering School, and the original Tinkering School in San Francisco. Then, he came back to Austin to develop more Tinkering School summer camps. Through this experience, in addition to learning how to use a lot of tools, he tried out a lot of things and saw what worked for him and what didn’t.

“I’ve tried a lot of things in my life and I’ve decided through those trials I’ve realized that I don’t want to do a lot of things in my career I guess, or even for fun…I failed at a lot of things, but then I tried to learn from those failures and tried to do it better the next time.”

This kind of trial and error is something that he encourages for the students he teaches, and is why he thinks Maker education is important.

“Rather than us just going through it accepting that something like a phone exists to realize that that took, you know, thousands of people and millions of hours to develop and all these failures and all these prototypes, and you start to see the world as a collection of work rather than just a collection of objects, you see things very differently and you think ‘oh, I can improve that! That isn’t just the way it is, I can make it better if I try’”

You start to see the world as a collection of work rather than just a collection of objects.

— Oren Connell

Connell brought this mentality to Ann Richards last summer through a Tinkering school summer camp hosted at ARS. Since then, he has parted ways with the Tinkering school and works part-time at ARS to help out at the new Makerspace and part-time developing curriculum for Skillpoint Alliance.

At this point in his career, he feels very satisfied.

“I’ve found that I’ve gotten a lot of variety, I get to continue to learn things…which is very important to me, and it’s challenging and fun…here part time then I’ve got other part-time work, too, so I keep plenty busy but I have enough time for my own projects. And I still get to go sailing.”

In these personal projects, he just likes to fiddle with things and see what kinds of things he can make.

“I’m in my fifth iteration of a bike light for my bike. The current version is going to be controlled with an arduino micro-controller and have seven RGB LEDs on the front and seven more on the rear with USB rechargeable lithium batteries and 3D printed enclosures…I’m also exploring how to shoot mini-marshmallows shooters with pressurized air… which is really fun.”

Connell also likes to tinker with his boat and sail on the weekends.

“Sailings’ my main one [hobby] that I love a lot. I race, and I have a little boat that I take down to Lady Bird lake and play around down there.”

Ultimately, what fulfills his passion for making is education. He loves to see the moment when his students learn something new through something that they’ve made.

“Even if they can’t do the calculations for why an airplane happened to fly and another one didn’t they understand that airplanes fly because they generate lift, because there’s pressure on one side that’s lower than pressure on the other side…When I see a kid understand how something in the world works, that’s when it makes me very happy. And when they don’t care about screwing something up.”

Through all his experience as a maker and an educator, what motivates him is the drive to learn and make.

“I like [education] because I think it’s helpful for kids, but I also think it’s pretty selfishly motivated. I get to play with cool stuff and learn new things, and those are things that I really enjoy… but also I think that that act can benefit other people, so I might as well do that, if I’m gonna have fun.”