Category Archives: STEM

PBL Gets a “Make”-over: Supercharging Projects with Maker Mindsets and Technology

Maker technology plus PBL

Schools around the world are embracing the idea of authentic hands-on technology-rich projects for students that support all subject areas. Students say these project-based learning (PBL) experiences are powerful and engaging. Teachers agree!

But often there seems to be no time to integrate these experiences into the classroom. Curriculum is overstuffed with facts and assessment tests loom large. How can teachers take the time for “extras” like in-depth projects? When do busy teachers have time to learn about technology that is ever-changing? Several recent trends combine futuristic technology from the maker movement with design thinking – creating experiences that engage and inspire learners in areas that integrate well with curricular expectations.

PBL + Maker

Maker technologies like 3D printing, robotics, wearable computing, programming, and more give students the ability to create real things, rather than simply report about things. They provide onramps to success in STEM and other subjects for students who are non-traditional learners. Students are empowered by mastering difficult things that they care about, and supported by a community that cares about their interests.

These opportunities are not just good because it’s about getting a good grade, but it’s about making the world a better place with technology that is magical and modern. 3D printing is a fantastic learning opportunity because students can work in three dimensions, making geometry and 3D coordinate math come alive. But that’s not all – it’s literally making something out of nothing. It transcends getting the right answer by adding creativity, complexity, and best of all, you get a real thing in the end. For some students, this makes all the difference.

Look for ways to

  • Introduce challenges that are open-ended
  • Solve real problems (student-designed rather than teacher-assigned)
  • Use an iterative design methodology
  • Allow time for mistakes and refinement – there should be time for things that don’t work the first time
  • Support collaboration with experts in and out of the classroom

Maker mindset

Another aspect of the maker movement is the “maker mindset.” Similar to a growth mindset, this is a personal trait valued by makers world-wide. Like MacGyver, the TV show about a tinkering crime-fighter, the maker mindset is more than just persistence. The maker mindset is about being flexible, thinking on your feet, looking for the unconventional answer, and never, ever giving up.

It’s a mistake to think that you can teach students persistence about tasks they don’t care about. That’s not persistence, that’s compliance. When the classroom is about invention and making real things, persistence becomes personal.

Students who experience success on their own terms can translate that to other experiences. Frustration can be reframed as a needed and welcomed step on the path to the answer. Students who figure things out for themselves need teachers to allow a bit of frustration in the process. In the maker mindset, frustration is a sign that something good is about to happen. It’s also an opportunity to step back and think, ask someone else, or see if there is another path. This may be a role shift for teachers who are used to answering student questions quickly as soon as they hit a small speed bump.

Luckily, with maker technology, it changes so rapidly that no one can be an expert on everything! In fact, this rapid evolution may make it easier to adopt the attitude of “if we don’t know, we can figure it out.” This attitude is not only practical, but models the maker mindset for students.

Adding maker technology and the maker mindset to the well-researched and practiced methods of project-based learning is a winning combination! Maker + PBL = Engaging learning opportunities for modern students and classrooms.

Future of Education Technology Conference Blog (crossposted) Article By FETC 2017 Speaker, Sylvia Martinez


sylvia martinezSylvia Martinez is the co-author of the book often called the “bible” of the classroom maker movement, “Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom

To learn more about supercharging PBL with maker mindsets and tools at Sylvia’s FETC workshops or sessions click here. (Get a discount on registration!) FETC is in Orlando, Florida in January, 2016.

What does “making” have to do with learning?

Learning is an engagement of the mind that changes the mind.

—Martin Heidegger

One of the biggest issues I have with many descriptions of “making” in education is that it’s about students just being creative with tools or materials.  I strongly disagree. Making is not just the simple act of you being the difference between raw materials and finished product, as in “I made dinner” or even “I made a robot.” I don’t think we always need to ascribe learning to the act of making — but the act of making allows the maker, and maybe an outsider (a teacher, perhaps) to have a window into the thinking of the maker.

So, do you always need a teacher for learning to happen? No. Some people are good at thinking about their own process and learning from that (“Wow, that butter made the sauce so much better.” “Next time, I’ll test the circuit before I solder.”) and some people are less likely to do that. But if I watch you cook, I will see certain things – how you organize your ingredients, how you react when you make a mistake, how you deal with uncertainty — and that is what teaching is about. A teacher who is a careful observer can see these kinds of signs, and then challenge the learner with harder recipes, a question to make them think, more interesting ingredients, or a few tips — all with an eye towards helping the other person learn and grow.

Technology like Arduinos and 3D printers have not become intertwined with the maker movement in education simply because they are new, but because they are some of the most interesting ingredients out there. Many of these “maker materials” rely on computational technology, which supports design in ways not possible otherwise. The command “Save As..” is possibly the most important design tool ever invented. Saving your design file or code means you can “do again” without “doing over,” supporting the iterative process and encouraging increasingly complex designs.

Complex technology, especially computational technology also allows educators to answer the question, “Isn’t this just arts and crafts?” And of course after defending arts and crafts – we can say that computational technology allows these same mindful habits to connect with the powerful ideas of the modern world that we hope children learn. Design and making are not just important for the A in STEAM, they are essential, but here’s a bigger idea, they are also essential for the T & E — and for them all to come together.

There is simply no technology without design; the definition of the word is literally “things in the designed world.” Making is a way to realize the “logo” part of the word – from the Greek word (logos) that means “word” but specifically words that express the order and reason of the universe. To Greek philosophers, a word was more than a sound or a mark, it was the embodiment of an idea — an idea made real. And yes, the Logo programming language owns this derivation as well.

The power of using computational technology in education is that the versatility and transparent complexity allows learners to make their ideas real, to make sense of the world, and to see their own capacity grow. This visible process also allows teachers to support and scaffold learners on their journey.

Learning by making happens only when the making changes the maker.

TalkingSTEM interview (part 2)

Part 2 of an interview I did with Koshi Dhingra on her blog, TalkingSTEM:

Conversation with Author of “Invent To Learn”

KD: School leaders, interested in providing opportunities for students to participate in the maker movement, often feel that they need a large influx of funding or of time or of appropriately qualified faculty before they can do so. What would you say to them?

We wrote a chapter about this in Invent To Learn to help school leaders “make the case” for making in the classroom. It’s not dependent on funding, but DOES need commitment to change the status quo. That means leadership that includes faculty in what these changes entail, and how it’s going to happen. Leadership is about vision, getting people on board with the vision, and making it their own. This takes time and persistence, not money. I’ve said before that “Making is not a shopping list or a special place, it’s a stance towards learning.” Creating a school culture where that stance is normal and expected in every classroom, lab, and learning space is what is needed.

KD: Many school administrators feel that the maker movement is for those settings that either brand themselves as STEM learning spaces (such as science museums, STEM Academies, or STEM-specific clubs) as opposed to schools aiming to provide a wholistic education that spends time and energy on the humanities. What would you say to them?

Although it seems obvious that the “low hanging fruit” of the making in education movement is STEM, I think it’s broader than that. The goal of all classes should be that students do work that is authentic, with real goals and a real audience as much as possible. If you want kids to learn grammar, they need to be asked to write things that they are proud to edit properly. It’s not that writing is old and boring and 3D printing is the wave of the future, that’s not my point. It’s that if you have interesting materials for all students to use in many different ways, you also have the opportunity for students to write instructions, make videos, learn about the history of things they build, or share their creations with others.

KD: Your list of resources to explore in Chapter 14 of Invent to Learn is impressive. I know I am going to be looking at the cardboard category carefully. How did you create these lists?

Gary and I have been working with a lot of schools and running professional development for teachers for many years. This gives us the opportunity to try new things and learn from schools that are on the cutting edge of student-centered creativity. The resources were gathered over many years and from around the world, and we continue to add new ones. We host a 4-day summer institute in New Hampshire that models our philosophy with lots of tools, technology, and software that we continuously evaluate and update: Constructing Modern Knowledge

I keep an online “” account of new resources that you can subscribe to as well!

KD: What does the word “project” mean to you? What does “STEM” mean to you? The terms are used so much by schools that it often is confusing for students, parents, and teachers to know what types of activity these terms should represent.

It’s often the case that terminology wanders from its original intent to come to mean so many things that it nearly means nothing! It’s also the case that schools try to shortcut best practices because there is so little time to focus on anything. For this reason, many “projects” assigned to students are merely long assignments. In many STEM programs, students are offered a few extra classes, but still take math separately from science, and get introduced to technology only as computer literacy.

I believe that the missing key to these is design – that by rethinking student work we must allow iterative design cycles where students are actually thinking about what they are doing. This is much like a painter standing back from their and thinking about what to do next. We rush kids through their work (and it’s never really “their” work) to such an extent that it becomes just a never-ending to do list, made by someone else.

We are actually lucky, I think, that so many kids work so hard on things that aren’t really meaningful. Imagine if they had the opportunity to work on projects that really mattered to them and to the world.

TalkingSTEM interview (part 1)

Part 1 of an interview I did with Koshi Dhingra on her blog, TalkingSTEM:

Conversation with Author of “Invent To Learn”

KD: How did you come to see the value of making, or inventing, as learning?  A little about your background….

My degree is in electrical engineering and I worked in aerospace for many years on the research and development of the GPS satellite navigation system. In that job I saw that the work we were doing had little relation to the “scientific method” as taught in schools. In fact, it was a lot more like my dad’s auto repair shop than it was to school science. After I had children, I became a video game developer and ended up as vice president of a software publishing company that also made educational games and software.

I found that I really enjoyed thinking about how learning happens, went back and got a masters in education, and became the president of an educational non-profit called Generation YES, that combined teaching students technology skills with service-learning. I saw first- hand not only how good young people were with technology, but also how students stepped up when given responsibility.

Several years ago, the Maker Movement started to get more attention world-wide, and I saw it not just as some cool new tools, but as a leading indicator of cultural change, a second industrial revolution, and a magnificent example of how the modern world learns to solve problems and share those solutions with everyone.

My co-author, Gary Stager and I decided that we could help build a bridge for educators and parents to see how this Maker Movement models good learning – exciting, engaging, and relevant learning. So we wrote Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.

KD:  How do you see the maker movement connecting to classroom cultures?  How does it speak to Bloom’s revised taxonomy (see diagram below)?

To me, the maker movement is showcasing how learning really happens, and making the words of educational giants like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Jean Piaget come alive. Piaget said, “Knowledge is a consequence of experience.” You can’t “do” learning to a child – they must be active participants in the experience. The maker movement brings us fabulous tools and materials that support all kinds of learning, and this supports a classroom that is vibrant and student-centered. The “get it done” attitude of the maker movement is a great mindset towards learning – that whatever the problem is, we can solve it, by working together and learning whatever we need to know to get it done.
bloomsI’m not a big fan of Bloom’s taxonomy, even the revised taxonomy. I think it’s horribly misused when it’s interpreted as a “ladder” or hierarchy of learning. It’s vague and misleading. I could argue every aspect of the terms and placement of some forms of learning as more complex, therefore superior to others. People also make the mistake of seeing this as a timeline – first the kids memorize things, then they show their understanding, etc. It’s the exact opposite of the kind of “maker” classroom I advocate where the “do” comes first, giving students something to build their learning on.

For example, let’s just take “creating” – supposedly the top of the tree. Why is this at the top? Sometimes when you create something, you then understand it better, not the other way around. You can create things without completely understanding them. In fact, the way I understand learning is that often it involves a deconstruction of previously held beliefs in order to accommodate more complex understandings.

I think that learning is much more iterative and fluid, and frameworks like this serve to constrain understanding how learning works, rather than celebrate its complexity.

KD: What should a parent, who does not have a tech background nor a lot of extra cash to buy expensive machinery or kits, do to go about building an environment where making is valued at home?  A teacher?  

I think that you follow the child’s interests and build upon them. Whenever possible, add complexity to what the child is doing, with conversations that involve prediction, measurement, analysis of any project. Cooking, for example, can become chemistry and mathematics, with authentic results that you can eat! Ask children to teach something to you and learn it together. Try not to say, “I’m so bad at math” or let your own fears become roadblocks to experimenting.

This is a list of parent roles in supporting children’s technological fluency from Stanford research[1]:

  • Teacher: teach new concepts
  • Learning broker: find and set up opportunities, connections, and activities
  • Project collaborator: work together
  • Resource provider: buy tools, books, materials
  • Employer: ask child to do a specific job or fix something
  • Learner: ask child to teach you something
  • Supporter: offer encouragement and advice

KD:  If one did want to buy a couple of high dollar items, which do you think one should start with?

I think that 3D printers have become synonymous with the maker movement, and sometimes divert attention from other technologies that might be a better place to start. Certainly, 3D printers are magical – literally making something out of nothing. And certainly they are getting faster, cheaper, and easier to use. However, unless the parent or teacher is really fascinated and willing to put in a lot of time with this technology, it’s probably not the best first choice.

I would look at microcontrollers like Arduino and Lilypad (for wearable computing). They are endlessly flexible, with a whole world of kits, parts, and communities supporting all kinds of experimentation. They involve programming, which I think is an essential skill for making sense of the world in the 21st century. They also can lead down so many paths, from musical instruments to robots to drones to electronics in clothes and textiles. There are kits and software combinations for all ages, even young children. We have lists of recommended products on our Invent To Learn website.

Part 2 to come!

[1] Barron, B. Martin, C, Takeuchi, L. & Fithian, R. (2009) Parents as learning partners and the development of technological fluency. International Journal of Learning and Media

Noticing Tools – New Apps from NYSCI

The New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) has just released a set of apps called Noticing Tools.

size wise app
Size Wise app lets you explore ratios and proportions

The suite of five apps gives educators and parents a new option for inspiring kids to want to learn math and science by using technology as a tool for creativity and collaborative exploration on topics ranging from ratios and proportion to fractions, physics, angular momentum, surface area and volume.

Let’s stop lying to girls about STEM careers

We all want girls (and all young people) to have equal opportunity and to be whatever they want to be. But the reality is grim. Women are discriminated against in the workforce. They are paid less than men, promoted less, and listened to less. It’s not “perception” – it’s the hard truth. (See the research here.)  And it’s worse in many STEM careers, especially in engineering and programming. In college, women are discriminated against in courses, grading, and in getting mentorships that are so important for advanced degrees.

Trace back down this pipeline to K-12 and the facts don’t get any happier. Girls are called on less often by teachers, are seen as not understanding math even when they get (generally) better grades and test scores than boys, and not selected as often for STEM slots in academies and special programs.

But girls have an advantage — they are typically better at a wider range of things than boys. Girls who get good grades in math and science get good grades in other subjects too, whereas boys tend to get good grades in one area. Girls who score well on tests in math and science tend to also score well in language, history, and other subjects.

So when we complain there is a “leaky pipeline” in K-12 education for girls in STEM courses, it’s not just discrimination. Girls are choosing to not major in STEM subjects for the very reasonable reason that they have more options.

Why would you choose to go into a field that doesn’t want you? Painting a false happy-talk picture of “you can be anything you want to be” is simply wishful thinking. And really, let’s call it like it is, it’s lying.

Lying to kids is bad. Lying makes kids distrust adults and strangles the most important educational tool of all, a relationship of trust between educators and young people. Even when the lie hides harsh reality, even when we wish it weren’t true, it’s better to speak the truth — and then work to fix it.

Now – am I saying that we should tell girls to just give up? No. I’m saying we have to tell girls AND BOYS the truth. That there is unfairness and discrimination in the world. We should tell them because they deserve the truth. We should tell them because they should (and will) be appalled. We should tell them because it gives them a chance to think about how it should be different. And then we should teach them how to make the world a fairer place, starting today.

Because guess who can fix it – they can. Girls AND boys are the only hope that this changes, and we have to give them the facts and enlist them in the effort.

It’s not like they don’t know it already. In a Girls Scouts study, (Generation STEM), “… 57% of all girls say that if they went into a STEM career, they’d have to work harder than a man just to be taken seriously.” And African American and Hispanic girls are more aware of this than Caucasian girls. (Also from Generation STEM, “Half (50%) of African American girls (compared to 38% of Caucasian girls) agree with the statement: “Because I am female, I would NOT be treated equally by the men I studied/ worked with if I pursued a career in STEM.”’)


These problems can’t be solved by sweeping them under the rug; they can only be solved when people clearly identify the issues and work TOGETHER to solve them.

What educators can do:

  • Arm yourself with the facts. I pulled together some resources for my ISTE session, Girls & STEM: Making It Happen
  • Talk with young people about stereotype threat, what it means, and how to overcome it.
  • Don’t just talk to girls about these issues – boys need to understand them too. The solutions must come from everywhere.
  • Boys and men are not “to blame” for how society treats women. It’s a long-standing issue, but one that can be changed by everyone working together.
  • Tell inspiring stories of women and girls – but also of men and boys who overcome obstacles and odds stacked against them.
  • This is not a “woman issue”. Use resources like: Ways to Increase Male Advocacy in Gender Diversity Efforts from the National Council on Women in Technology (NCWIT) and adapt for your own setting.
  • Address issues of discrimination in your own settings quickly and fairly. What you do (as the adult in the room) matters. But not just in the classroom, also in the hallway, gym, faculty lounge, conference stage, and offices.
  • Be mindful of your own behavior and try as much as possible to open the learning invitations to all students.
  • Look for opportunities to bring stories of discrimination (at appropriate levels) to students to discuss. What do they think, how do they feel about it, what do they want to change?


Girls & STEM: Making It Happen – resources

Resources for my ISTE 2015 presentation:

Girls & STEM: Making it Happen Tuesday, June 30, 4:00–5:00 pm Sylvia Martinez PCC Ballroom B

July 2, 2015 – Updated with slides!

Other ISTE events

Citations and other resources mentioned in this presentation


Invent To Learn

MakeHers: Engaging Girls and Women in Technology through Making, Creating, and Inventing (Intel infographic)

Power, Access, Status: The Discourse of Race, Gender, and Class in the Maker Movement

Leah Buechley – Gender, Making, and the Maker Movement (video from FabLearn 2013)


National Girls Collaborative Project (links to many others)

National Council of Women and Informational Technology

American Association of University Women

Unesco International Bureau of Education (IBE)  – Multiple resources such as: Strengthening STEM curricula for girls in Africa, Asia and the Pacific10 Facts about Girls and Women in STEM in Asia

WISE (UK) – campaign to promote women in science, technology, and engineering

My posts about gender issues, stereotype threat, and other topics mentioned in this session

Stereotype Threat – Why it matters

Inclusive Makerspaces (article for EdSurge)

What a Girl Wants: Self-direction, technology, and gender

Self-esteem and me (a girl) becoming an engineer


Securing Australia’s Future STEM: Country Comparisons – Australian Council of Learned Academies

Generation STEM:  What girls say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – Girl Scouts of the USA (2012) (Girls 14-17)

Effective STEM Programs for Adolescent Girls: Three Approaches and Many Lessons Learned

Women’s underrepresentation in science: Sociocultural and biological considerations. (2009)

Gresham, Gina. “A study of mathematics anxiety in pre-service teachers.” Early Childhood Education Journal 35.2 (2007): 181-188.

Beilock, Sian L., et al. “Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.5 (2010): 1860-1863.

Teachers’ Spatial Anxiety Relates to 1st- and 2nd-Graders’ Spatial Learning


National Center for Educational Statistics

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

How tos: New Making in Education posts from the FabLearn Fellows

Several recent FabLearn Fellow blog posts have created a lot of room for discussion around the topics of fabrication, making, and design in museums and classrooms. Please comment and add your voice!

A brief overview of recent posts:

In 18th Century Buildings, Vector Drawing, History, and Math, Heather Pang explores how a project designed to be a simple skill-builder evolved into something more.

Christa Flores tackles Making for Making Sake? or STEAM for 21st Century Job Skills? weaving in educational philosophy, economic policy, and reaching out to FabLearn 2014 Netherlands attendees to create a global conversation.

Avoiding Cookie Cutters by Keith Ostfeld muses on redesigning an Inventor’s Workshop in a museum setting to help partcipants create more diverse, but still successful projects and includes a terrific video showcasing some young creators in action.

Addressing another perceived roadblock to projects in the classroom – that one teacher simply can’t support students all doing different projects, Christa Flores documents students as co-teachers in The Role of Co-Teachers in a Maker Classroom.

And Heather Pang considers “… the question of how much guidance, how many constraints, how much help to give students…” in Where is the line?

These posts all explore some of the most-asked questions hands-on authentic learning: How do students build skills? How does a teacher assess project work? How does a teacher reflect and iterate on lesson planning and design? Doesn’t this take more time than traditional instruction?

But most of all, these posts all help answer the question, “Can authentic learning be done in real schools and learning spaces?” Obviously the answer is YES!

Are programmers born that way?

A comment I hear every once in a while goes something like this: “Why teach programming to everyone? There is a “programmer type” and not all kids are “that way”. It’s just a waste of everyone’s time!”

I don’t agree. I believe programming is a liberal art – a way to express yourself and make sense of the world.

I recognize the stereotype. I was that kid. Driven, intense, socially awkward, and able to tune out the outside world. I also believe that many programmers today do fit that “nerd” profile because the artificial nature of computer science in school creates a pathway that is amenable to this personality type.

The more I learn about learning, the more I realize that school often “coaches out” people who think differently and have different problem-solving styles. People who might have become amazing programmers if there wasn’t only “one way” allowed. There have been many studies about teaching programming and many point to ways to teach it that are very different than we use now. More inclusive, but untraditional ways.

We desperately need a wider variety of people to become programmers, makers, engineers and scientists. I firmly believe that allowing young people the chance to follow these paths, no matter who they are or what they natural styles are will create a stronger, more vibrant citizenry who understand science and can make good decisions about their lives.

What I’m saying is that the fact that programmers tend to be a certain personality type is a symptom of the way we currently teach – not that they naturally make better programmers.

Should schools embrace making because it develops job skills?

I often hear that making, especially learning to program, is valuable because it develops “job skills”.

However, I don’t advocate for programming or making or tinkering because it’s a job skill. In fact, the “STEM crisis” is largely a myth. (See this IEEE article series.) There is even speculation that this is largely manufactured by companies trying to get more visas for lower paid workers, plus drive down salaries for veteran engineers and scientists by inflating the numbers of graduates.

That aside, I believe that programming is strongly a part of any real “maker” program and should not be artificially separated. I also don’t believe that kids learning programming or doing hands on work is “job training.” I believe it creates habits of mind that serve everyone. Logical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity are good for everyone. All students should have access to this basic literacy just like reading and writing is taught to all even though we don’t believe that everyone will be novelists.