Model railroading will save the world!

In Mark’s response to my post earlier this week about the Importance of Model Railroading, he pointed out that the hobby is also beneficial in developing the skills that we need to tackle the world’s hard problems.  Several local tech innovators got their starts in model railroading, and Mark is fond of pointing out that the original hackers came from the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club.  As Mark says, “If Makers will save the world then we need more Makers and MR’ing teaches valuable Maker skills.”

Maybe this should be the goal of organizations like the NMRA.  Today, “the purposes of the National Model Railroad Association are, in part, to promote, stimulate, foster, and encourage by all manner and means the art and craft of model railroading.” [NMRA Executive Handbook]  This is a self-serving mission akin to “make money by selling sugar water.”  It’s no wonder the membership is dying off.  People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it [Simon Sinek].

What if we turned the NMRA’s purpose on its head?  What if our goal were to support the growth of Maker skills through model railroading?  That is, rather than being a self-serving inward-facing hobby and organization, we look outward to be a world-serving organization.  Model Railroading could save the world!

What would this look like?

I imagine a course similar to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training.  The L&LS’s purpose is to raise awareness and funds for research, but you could be forgiven for thinking their purpose was to create healthy people who exercise.  To effect this, volunteers provide standardized local training programs that build peoples’ skills toward a goal, such as completing a race. The key features are that the course is a social opportunity, it’s relatively short, and it successfully enables the team to accomplish something they didn’t think they could.

The model railroad equivalent would teach some basic and (mostly) transferable skills – planning, measuring, carpentry, soldering, CAD, model building, electronics and scenery.   The project that could initiate all these skills is a Freemo module, and the goal of the team would be to build and display a Freemo layout at a Maker Faire.  The key is not to sell it as an introduction to model railroading, but as an introduction to making.  I’m calling the program “Get Off the Couch and Make Something, GOTCAMS.”   It’s a working title, a slight improvement over GOYAAMS, which was its name as I rode home this evening.

Maybe some of the participants would take up model railroading, and that would be fine.  Maybe some of them would go on to save the world, and that would be amazing!

The Photo shows my colleague and I hope friend, Darryl Hodgins, who claims not to be a Maker, but is.  He may go on to save the world, or he may go on to run a triathlon.



13 thoughts on “Model railroading will save the world!

  1. Very poignant. I am an example of someone who didn’t set out to be a model railroader but wanted to create and mr’ing was an avenue toward that. Eventually it lead to building and construction, design and architecture, and finally renovation and restoration of historic structures. My architectural license was just the reward for completing one of the marathons – a goal.

    Building & models are still important to me as one feeds the other. I may not save the world but maybe make a small difference where I live.

    Great post.

  2. To extend this thinking…what if the NMRA simply became a”Model Railroading Special Interest Group” inside the Maker Movement?

    Although subordinate, at least it would be on a growing rather than shrinking demographic with the correspondingly greater market awareness and exposure inside the general populace (100k visitors at San Francisco’s Make Faire last year).

    Bold actions might be to cease independent Meets and put the energy into Maker events where SIG activities and get togethers could be organized (just like the OPSIG and LDSIG and RPM groups or various RR Modeller Historic societies gather at NMRA events today).

    Other implications of this subordination could be Model Railroading columns and articles inside Make magazine, etc.

    Is it time – or past time – to reframe our whole hobby?


    1. Is there actually the notion of special interest organizations within the Maker movement? Indeed, apart from Maker Media Inc, is there anything to be subordinate to?

      1. No I don’t think so…yet. Just independent Interest groups (like Lego clubs, mechano clubs, Mindstorms clubs, model engineering clubs etc.) that choose promote themselves at and through Maker Faires.

        But I think this MR subordination would be an important mindset shift.


  3. There are examples like the First Tee program of the PGA that uses golf to teach young people life skills such as focus, integrity and so on. Our vision is rooted in an archaic past and is far too limited.


    1. Here we go, answer my own question:


      At The First Tee, we don’t just teach golf, we teach life skills — and we have the independent research to back it up. After three years in the program, youth at The First Tee chapters reported¹:

      73% reported high confidence in their ability to do well academically.

      82% felt confident in their social skills with peers.

      52% credited the program for their ability to appreciate diversity.

  4. This bit looks like a pretty easy tweek:

    “the purposes of the National Model Railroad Association are, in part, to promote, stimulate, foster, and encourage all manner and means of art and craft via model railroading.”

    But I think model railroading goes beyond being a maker enterprise. The elements of history, culture, economics, logistics, storytelling, and so on are part of what attracts many to the hobby, and to your point those interests are made more accessible through model railroading.

    I teach in a K-8 school that is very Maker-y, with a Maker workshop that all of the students enjoy. We also host a very popular annual Mini Maker Fair. On top of all that, and complementary to it, I’m building a model railroad in my classroom for precisely the reasons you raise, plus the ones I mention above, plus my very math-specific curriculum.

    Recasting model railroading as a vehicle towards a larger purpose, rather than as a destination, is near and dear to my heart!

    Jeff Allen

    1. Great point about the historical, cultural aspects of model railroading. I wonder if one could work that into the purpose of model railroading too? It would imply a different program than GOTCAMS, but would appeal to a different demographic. Perhaps you could call it multimedia story-telling.

  5. I appreciate you clear, brief insights and have shared this with many of the train groups I belong to and gotten an overwhelmingly positive response! I am more of a ‘dreamer’ and ‘vision guy’ than much of a ‘doer’ or ‘maker’ anymore but I think vision is something that is missing in a lot of the railroad groups I work with, thanks for your inspiring thoughts!

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