Curiosity heals at the Repair Café

About 11 years ago I founded the first Repair Café in a German high school near Dusseldorf where we started to fix devices, repair chairs, and made things work again which were broken, abandoned, or out of function. The kids volunteered to stay after school and learned to fix things.

Boys are looking into the back side of an open tv set

Sometimes we just open devices to investigate what’s inside.

Once, a 12-year-old boy from my class came to the Repair Café with a big bag. The bag contained a complete automatic coffee machine including a water tank, coffee and filter holder, and even a printed manual. He told us that he pulled it out of the garbage because he thought it was wrong to discard a machine that was only two years old. His mother told him it’s out of order and she already ordered a new machine. He was a curious kid and wanted to know: what’s the problem with this thing? So, he brought it to our repair appointment. Fortunately, he saved all the accessories for the machine, so we could fill the water tank, install the filter holder, and do a check.

After connecting the machine to electricity and switching it on, a tiny red light on the front appeared, and the machine did … nothing. OK, what does this red light mean? For the boy’s mother the light was telling her: “I’m done, throw me away.” For us, a little gang of technically interested kids and two adults, the light said: “Hey, I have a problem, could you please care for me?” The kids around the table speculated: “What’s inside this machine?” How does it work exactly? Which parts do what? There’s still life in it, so the cable must be OK, otherwise, there would be no red light.” So, we instantly were sucked into a technical investigation. They searched for the screws that held the whole thing together and one of the boys got a screwdriver.

I would have let them open the machine and investigate what’s inside and what could be wrong. However, my Repair Cafe colleague who was not a teacher, but a very skilled technician, stopped them. He explained that he would try to first find out what this tiny red light was trying to tell us before investing a lot of effort into opening the machine. And yes, we even had the manual! So, four or five boys huddled over this tiny booklet and searched for the meaning of the red light beneath the three push buttons on the front. After a while they found the German chapter and later a description for the push buttons and the red light. The kids had to read carefully and exactly in order to decode the meaning of the text.

Eventually, they discovered that the light was saying that the machine needed to decalcify. What’s that? My experienced colleague helped with a perfect short explanation of the chemistry of water and what chalky deposits, caused by water evaporation, can do inside the different parts of the machine. We needed a liquid for decalcification. Now! Instantly! We only had one small grocery store nearby, so we sent three kids out with some coins for a bottle of vinegar. When they came back, we made a diluted vinegar solution and filled the water tank. After that, the kids followed the instructions in the manual for the decalcification routine. They all had a big surprise when they pushed two of the front buttons at the same time, as described in the manual, and the water pump inside came to life  and made a deep humming sound. The routine worked exactly as described. They had to repeat the routine several times, at first with the vinegar solution, then with fresh water. And after running this routine properly – surprise! – the red light was off! The machine worked as it had on its very first day.

Desk full of stuff, man repairs a film projector

Repairing things with kids is always fun, and always a gathering of young and old!

For some of the kids, that afternoon was an awakening. They didn’t miss even one of our Repair Café meetings throughout the years! Later we found out a lot more about these kinds of machines —how to open them, and how to change fuses, water hoses, the boiler, or the water pump. We learned that most of the cases are connected simply to decalcification and the disability (or inability) of adult people to read and understand a manual.

Two girls at a desk repair a tiny lamp

Soldering isn’t an ability just for itself, it’s a skill that kids can use to fix broken devices.

For the boy with the big bag, it was a great triumph that day when he arrived home and presented the working machine and what he learned to his parents. And they also learned something! Not only that their son is a smart boy but also that it’s worth it to think about our modern life and to reflect on what is waste and what things are of value.

For many of the students who have come to the Repair Cafe, it is more than just things that are healed. They heal themselves, as they learn that they are smart and have value in society.

There is a well-known German phrase that applies here, “Alle sagten: ‘Das geht nicht!’ Dann kam jemand, der wusste das nicht und hat es einfach gemacht.” It translates to English as “Everyone said, ‘That’s not possible!’ Then someone who didn’t know that came along and just did it.”

Two students investigate a kitchen machine

Students investigate a kitchen appliance. They know that electricity is dangerous, and they are careful with it If they are not sure what to do, they can ask. Otherwise we trust them to be responsible.

For our after-school-initiative, this story was one of the sparks and reasons why it succeeded. We were able to grow and open it up from the small school community to the wider public. At least one Repair Café per month was held over many years where hundreds of people got advice and help with their technical stuff. A lot of communication and new connections developed between students and the community. Many elderly people who still understood the value of repairing, were impressed when they met our smart and by then trained kids who knew how to deal with mechanical and electrical problems.

Repair Cafe Banner on a fence, school buildings in background

The Repair Cafe is open about a dozen times per year here.

Parents have been very engaged in our project over the years in a variety of roles— as learners, as supporters, as our advocates in the community. I believe the Repair Cafe experience helped parents understand or maybe even to remember what they already knew, that education can and must be more than sitting six hours a day, five days a week in a room only to learn theory and facts.

Over the years, the Repair Cafe has proven time and time again that learning is best done in a community. The fact that a few appliances are fixed is secondary to the valuable experiences of a community coming together and learning about each other. We see every year that lives are changed as young people see themselves as important, competent members of a community, and learn how smart and skilled their older counterparts are. The older generation sees that young people are capable, caring, and compassionate, perhaps dispelling myths about how “kids today” are lazy and glued to video games.

The Repair Cafe may seem like a simple idea, one that could not possibly solve such a complex problem as healing communities. But even complex, difficult problems can be solved. It may not be easy, but has to be done anyway, so as we say in our Makerspace “Einfach machen!”—just make it!