The maker movement, a technological and creative learning revolution underway around the globe, has exciting and vast implications for the world of education. New tools and technology, such as 3D printing, robotics, microprocessors, wearable computing, e-textiles, “smart” materials, and programming languages are being invented at an unprecedented pace. The maker movement creates affordable or even free versions of these inventions, while sharing tools and ideas online to create a vibrant, collaborative community of global problem-solvers.
Fortunately for teachers, the maker movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing. By embracing the lessons of the maker movement, educators can revamp the best student-centered teaching practices to engage learners of all ages.
One might try to marginalize robotics or 3D fabrication as having nothing to do with “real” science and dismiss such activities as play or as just super-charged hobbies. However, today’s new low-cost, flexible, creative, and powerful materials should be viewed as building blocks for today’s children. They offer much more than just “hands-on” crafting—these tools bring electronics, programming, and computational mathematics together in meaningful, powerful ways. We must reimagine school science and math not as a way to prepare students for the next academic challenge, or a future career, but as a place where students are inventors, scientists, and mathematicians today.
Three big game-changers of the maker movement should be on every school’s radar:
Computer-Controlled Fabrication Devices
Over the past few years, devices that fabricate three-dimensional objects have become an affordable reality. These 3D printers can take a design file and output a physical object. Plastic filament is melted and deposited in intricate patterns that build layer by layer, much like a 2D printer prints lines of dots that line by line create a printed page. With 3D design and printing, students can design and create their own objects.
New open-source microcontrollers, sensors, and interfaces connect the physical and digital worlds in ways never before possible. Many schools are familiar with robotics, one aspect of physical computing, but a whole new world is opening up. Wearable computing—in which circuits are made with conductive thread—makes textiles smart, flexible, and mobile. Plug-and-play devices that connect small microprocessors to the Internet, to each other, or to any number of sensors mean that low-cost, easy-to-make computational devices can test, monitor, and control your world.
From the Next Generation Science Standards to the White House, there is a new call for schools to teach computer programming. Programming is the key to controlling a new world of computational devices and the range of programming languages has never been greater. Today’s modern languages are designed for every purpose and learners of all ages.
“Hard fun” and the process of design
The tools and ethos of the maker revolution offer insight and hope for schools. The breadth of options and the “can-do” attitude espoused by the movement is exactly what students need, especially girls who tend to opt out of science and math in middle and high school.
However, hands-on making is not just a good idea for young women. All students need challenge and “hard fun” that inspires them to dig deeper and construct big ideas. Making science hands-on and interesting is not pandering to young sensibilities; it honors the learning drive and spirit that is all too often crushed by endless worksheets and vocabulary drills. Making is a way of bringing engineering to young learners. Such concrete experiences provide a meaningful context for understanding the abstract science and math concepts traditionally taught by schools while expanding the world of knowledge now accessible to students for the first time.
Tinkering is a powerful form of “learning by doing,” an ethos shared by the rapidly expanding maker movement community and many educators. Real science and engineering is done through tinkering. We owe it to our children to give them the tools and experiences that actual scientists and engineers use, and now is the time is to bring these tools and learning opportunities into classrooms. There are multiple pathways to learning what we have always taught, and things to do that were unimaginable just a few years ago.
Celebrating young talent
The maker movement celebrates the talents of young people such as Sylvia (aka “Super-Awesome Sylvia”) who has a webcast show, Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show; Joey Hudy, who surprised President Obama with a homemade marshmallow cannon in the White House; and Caine Munro, a young man who made an entire game arcade entirely out of cardboard and tape and inspired the world in the process.
Of course, these are extraordinary young people—but there are extraordinary young people in every city, every school, and every classroom who deserve the same opportunities to express themselves by inventing, creating, and making. When the same tools and intellectual processes are found and required in the physics lab, art studio, and auto shop, schools can finally stop sorting children into academic and vocational tracks. All students need experiences that call upon their heads, hearts, and hands.
Lessons from the maker movement
“Doing” Is What Matters
Makers learn to make stuff by making stuff. Schools often forget this as they continuously prepare students for something that is going to happen next week, next year, or in some future career. The affordable and accessible technology of the maker movement makes learning by doing a realistic approach for schools today.
The maker movement is a child of the Internet but does not fetishize it. Makers share designs, code, and ideas globally but making occurs locally. Makers share their expertise with a worldwide audience. “We” are smarter than “me” is the lesson for educators. Collaboration on projects of intense personal interest drive the need to share ideas and lessons learned more than external incentives like grades.
Give It A Go
Back in the ’80s, MacGyver could defuse a bomb with chewing gum and paper clips. Modern MacGyvers are driven to invent the solution to any problem by making things, and then making those things better. Perhaps “grit” or determination can be taught, but there is no substitute for experience. The best way for students to become deeply invested in their work is for their projects to be personally meaningful, afforded sufficient development time, given access to constructive materials, and the students themselves encouraged to overcome challenges.
Computers make designing new inventions risk-free and inexpensive. You can now tinker with designs and programs and make prototypes easily and quickly. This is a departure from the linear design methodology that assumed that mistakes were expensive and need to be avoided. However, many educators are still clinging to old design models where students are provided recipes and prescriptive rubrics that hamper student imagination and preclude serendipitous learning. This practice deprives students of the opportunity to take risks and learn how to navigate their way to the end of a sophisticated project.
Many maker projects are indistinguishable from art. It’s human to embellish, decorate, and seek the beauty in life. In schools, there is a movement to add the Arts to STEM subjects (STEAM). That’s a good instinct, but if school hadn’t artificially removed all traces of creativity and art from STEM subjects, we wouldn’t need to talk about STEAM. Find ways to allow students to make projects with pride and unencumbered by categorization.
Mentoring Defies Ageism
As Sir Ken Robinson says, school is the only place in the world where we sort people by their manufacturing date. The Maker Movement honors learners of all ages and embraces the sharing of expertise. Young people like “Super Awesome Sylvia” and Jody Hudy are valued alongside decades-older master tinkerers and inventors. Schools may create opportunities for mentoring and apprenticeship by connecting with the greater community. The classroom teacher shouldn’t be the only one with access to expertise.
Learning Is Intensely Personal
The current buzz about “personalized learning” is more often than not a scheme to deliver content by computerized algorithm. Not only is it magical thinking to believe that computers can teach, it confuses learning with delivering content. Learning happens inside the individual. It can’t be designed or delivered. Learning is personal—always. No one can do it for you. Giving kids the opportunity to master what they love means they will love what they learn.
It IS About the Technology
Some educators like to say that technology is “just a tool” that should fit seamlessly into classrooms. In contrast, the Maker Movement sees tools and technology as essential elements for solving unsolvable problems. To makers, a 3D printer is not for learning to make 3D objects. Instead, it is the raw material for solving problems, such as how to create inexpensive but custom-fit prosthetics for people anywhere in the world, or how to print a pizza for hungry astronauts. The Maker philosophy prepares kids to solve problems their teachers never anticipated, with technology we can’t yet imagine.
One motto of the maker movement is “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” Educators often talk about how learners should own their own learning, but if the learner doesn’t have control, they can’t own it. Teachers should consider that prepackaged experiences for students, even in the name of efficiency, are depriving students of owning their own learning. Learning depends on learners with maximum agency over their intellectual processes.
Getting started with classroom making
Luckily, getting started with making in the classroom is not just about shopping for new toys. Making is a position on learning that puts the learner in charge. Giving students time to brainstorm, invent, design, and build—and then time to fix mistakes, improve, test, and improve again is crucial. The sidebar below, “Project Ideas for Maker Classrooms,” contains some ideas, but the most important element of classroom making is allowing the students to have agency over their own creations.
This doesn’t mean that the teacher does nothing! Far from it. Being a guide, studio manager, and motivator is the important work of the teacher. Resist the urge to lecture students about invention and just get busy.
Whether you are getting started in your classroom or building a Makerspace, the most important thing to remember is that making is about making sense of the world, not about the “stuff.” Making connections and making meaning are the true results of classroom making, not the plastic or cardboard artifacts. However, you’ll be even more beneficial to your students if you develop fluency with the materials, tools, and processes available in your learning environment.
The Common Core and the new Next Generation Science Standards emphasize critical thinking, creativity, and twenty-first-century skills. To achieve these goals requires taking a hard look at both what we teach and how we teach it. The Maker Movement offers lessons, tools, and technology to steer students toward more relevant, engaging learning experiences.
Maker projects for elementary school
- Invent a new toy! Use recycled materials to design and build a fun toy or game. Have a toy fair where everyone can play with your inventions. Use any materials and tools you have access to, from cardboard to 3D printers.
- Use Scratch, a free computer programming language designed for young people from the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT, to write your name on the screen or to animate your initials. Check out the library of over three million projects on the Scratch website and “remix” one of them into your own computer program.
- Build a marble wall with marble runs, ramps, and wheels. Do-it-yourself physics and motion comes to life! Add counters, switches, and diverters to increase challenge and fun.
- Investigate stop-motion animation and make a movie about a historical event.
Maker projects for middle school
- Sew a new friend. Felt, LEDs, conductive thread, and craft materials combine to create stuffed animals, wearable electronic jewelry, headbands, belts, and more.
- Create an avatar that represents you using simple graphics programs.
- Kits provide easy and fun ways to learn to solder. Soldering is a useful skill for building more advanced electronics. Try Drawdio, which turns a pencil into a simple music synthesizer. Or Minty Boost, a battery-powered cellphone charger that fits inside a tiny gum tin.
- MaKey MaKey An “invention kit for everyone,” MaKey MaKey should be a part of any tinkering classroom. MaKey MaKey creates a simple connection between the computer and everyday objects. Imagine playing music on bananas or using playdough as a game controller. Create MaKey Makey invention time for students to tinker, explore, and invent!
Maker projects for high school
- Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and other open-source microcontrollers can be used to solve everyday problems, build robots that respond to sensors, lights, and colors, or talk to the Internet. Ask students to invent their own robots and machines. Then document those inventions online so others can learn from their efforts.
- Program a game showcasing your knowledge of a mathematical topic. Free and low-cost software options can be found in the resources of Invent to Learn.
- Low-cost, wearable, washable computers, such as Lilypad and Flora, can make computers mobile and take clothing into the twenty-first century. Explore ideas at sites such as the LilyPond or in books such as Arduino Wearables by Tony Olsson.
Click here to read 8 Elements of a Good Maker Project.