PBL Gets a “Make”over – ISACS Learning Bridge Webinar

The Independent Schools Association of Central States (ISACS) offers Learning Bridge webinars live and recorded for professional development. (Register here)

Sylvia will be presenting:

PBL Gets a Make-Over: Prompts, Scaffolding & Assessment for the Maker Classroom
Presenter: Sylvia Martinez
Thursday, November 30, 2017
3:00 pm – 4:00 pm (central)
Audience: Faculty and Administrators, grades 3-12

Of course students should have powerful hands-on project-based experiences in the classroom—but does that happen? Explore how to design engaging prompts with helpful scaffolding and how to manage the project process when students are using cutting edge technology integrated with iterative design. Learn about new research on assessment for projects and real classroom practices using modern technology and materials.

Sylvia Martinez is the co-author of Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering the Classroom helping teachers bring the exciting tools and technology of the modern world to classrooms. She advocates for student-centered project-based learning with an emphasis on STEAM for all. Sylvia is the principal advisor to the Stanford University FabLearn Fellows, a group of global educators researching and developing hands-on, minds-on projects and curriculum. She also ran educational non-profits and headed product development for consumer software, video games, and educational games at several software publishing companies. Martinez started her career designing high frequency receiver systems and software for GPS navigational satellites. She holds a masters in educational technology and a bachelor’s in electrical engineering. For more information, visit sylviamartinez.com


Discounts of up to $15.00 per seminar are available if you register for multiple seminars.

(Register here)



Making in the classroom is a political stance

When I talk about the maker movement in schools I do talk about tools and spaces, but I try to make the point that it’s about giving agency to kids in a system that most often considers students to be objects of change, rather than agents of change.

One of our reasons for writing the book Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom  was to try to create momentum for the return of progressive principles of education, principles that have been yanked away from kids and teachers by politicians, corporations, and Silicon Valley gurus who think they know how to fix everything with an app.

I think this is a historic time, a second Industrial Revolution, where everything is coming together right at the right time. And like the Industrial Revolution, it will not be just a change in technology, but will resonate in politics, culture, economics, and how people live and work worldwide.

Politics, power, and empowerment
People may not think of the Maker Movement or making in the classroom as a political stance, but they both are.

Politics isn’t only about who gets elected, or the day to day “action” on Capitol Hill, it’s a negotiation of power in any relationship – who has it, who can use it, and over how many other people. The Maker Movement is about sharing ideas and access to solutions with the world, not for money or power, but to make the world a better place. It’s about trusting other people, often people you don’t know, to use these ideas for good.

Making in the classroom is also about power and trust, and perhaps in an even more important way, because it’s about transferring power to a new generation. Young people who are the ones who will take over the world in the not too distant future. And if the learner has agency and responsibility over their own learning, they gain trust, not just the trust of the adults in the room, but trust in themselves as powerful problem-solvers and agents of change.

It is a political statement to work to empower people, just as it is a political statement to work to disempower people. That holds true for all people, not just young people. Being a helpless pawn in a game controlled by others is disempowering, whether you are a teacher, student, parent, or citizen of the world. Deciding that you trust another person enough to share power, or even more radical, give them agency over important decisions, is indeed political.

Making is not only a stance towards taking that power back, as individuals and as a community, but also trusting ourselves and each other to share that power to create, learn, grow, and solve problems. Empowering students is an act of showing trust by transferring power and agency to the learner. Helping young people learn how to handle the responsibility that goes along with this power is the sensible way to do it. Creating opportunities to develop student voice and inspiring them with modern tools and modern knowledge needed to solve real problems is part of this job.

And by the way, you can’t have empowered students without empowered teachers. Script-reading robot teachers will not empower students. We have to fight against the devaluation of teachers, and the devaluation of kids as cogs in some corporate education machine. We can do this, we can change minds, even if it’s hard, even if it seems impossible. We just have to do it anyway. That’s politics.

Education will change, how it changes is up to us
For education to change, it can’t just be tweaks to policy, or speeches, or buying the new new thing — teachers have to know how to empower learners every day in every classroom and be able to make it happen. Leadership is creating the conditions for this to happen.

Let me say it again – There is no chance of having empowered students without empowered teachers — competent, professional, caring teachers who have agency over their classroom and curriculum – who are supported by their leaders and community in that work.

So the question is – can the maker movement really have this kind of impact on schools? Or will this fade into a long line of fads and new-new things that promise educational revolution without actually requiring any change at all.

I see this as a singular time in history. There is an opportunity to leverage momentum swinging away from the testing idiocracy, away from techno-centric answers — to making education better with thoughtful, human answers.

Am I really saying that technology is the way to make education more human? Yes – but only if the technology is used to give agency to the learner, not the system.

I see a convergence of science and technology, along with the power of networks to connect people who are solving problems both global and local. I see people who are fed up with consumerism, opting out of corporate testing schemes – people who no longer have to wait for answers or hand outs from the government, from a big company, or from a university. They can figure it out, make it, and share it with the world.

Why is it different this time?
But haven’t there been a thousand “revolutions” that failed to change education? Why do I think this time is different? Why is this movement going to not be another failed attempt to “fix” education? Because my hero, Seymour Papert, the father of everything that’s good in educational technology, said so.

In his 1998 paper Technology in Schools: To Support the System or to Render it Obsolete, Papert said that the profound ideas of John Dewey didn’t fail, but were simply ahead of their time. Experiential learning is not just another school reform destined to failure because three reversals are taking place right now.

The first reversal is that children can be part of the change. Papert called it “kid power”.

Schools used to demand that students meet standards. But the time is coming when students will demand that schools live up to the standards of learning they have come to expect via their personal computers, even their phones. As Mimi Ito has written about so persuasively, more and more young people learn independently and follow their own passions via online sites and communities, and most of them are NOT run by traditional educational institutions.

The second reversal Papert identifies is that the computer offers “learner technology” instead of “teacher technology.” Many attempts at inserting technology into classrooms simply reinforce the role of teacher (video lectures, Khan Academy), replace the teacher (drill and practice apps, computerized testing), or provide management tools for the teacher (LMS, CMS).

But now we have affordable computers, sensors, and simple programming tools that are LEARNER materials. This transition, if we choose to make the transition, Papert says “…offers a fundamental reversal in relationships between participants in learning.”

The third reversal is that powerful ideas previously only available in abstraction, or in high level courses can now be made understandable for young children. Much like learning a foreign language in early years is easier, we can help students live and breathe complex topics with hands-on experiences.

I believe that this is overlooked in much talk about making in education. While I love the awesome “get it done” Macgyver attitude of the maker movement and the incorporation of artistic sensibilities like mindfulness – I think these are secondary effects. The maker movement is laying 21st century content out on a silver platter – things that we want kids to know, things kids are interested in, but are hard to teach with paper and pencil. Content and ideas that are the cornerstone of learning in the 21st century – from electronics and computer programming to mathematical and scientific concepts like feedback, 3D design, precision, and randomness – can be learned and understood by very young children as they work with computational technology.

But this third reversal may be the most difficult – these ideas were not taught to parents and teachers when they were children. Convincing parents and teachers that today’s children need to understand these new, fundamentally different concepts may be the hardest work of all.

No doubt, there is hard work to be done
The strategy for overcoming the last obstacle brings us back to politics and back to empowerment.

It means that for those of us who want to change education, the hard work is in our own minds, bringing ourselves to enter intellectual domains we never thought existed. Challenging conventions and cultural institutions that are ingrained in us in childhood. Sharing power with others, including students who might not do exactly what we expect them to do. Being willing to change everything, even when we feel we can change nothing.

The deepest problem for us is not technology, or teaching, or school bureaucracies – it’s the limits of our own thinking.

Politics is action, but everyone doesn’t have to be doing the same thing
What can we do when each one of us is in our own unique situation, each of us has a different position on the levers of power, and each of us sees with our own lens? Actually, I believe that this diversity offers strength, because no one person can do everything. Everyone has a part to play to take back the power of learning and create classrooms and other learning spaces where teachers and students are empowered and acknowledged as the center of the learning process.

And that, I believe, is ultimately a political act that will make the world a better place.

Getting started – should I buy Arduinos for my classroom?

I get asked some variant of “what is the first thing I should buy for my classroom/makerspace?” almost every day! It’s great people are planning for maker-greatness, but there is some confusion out there because Arduinos and 3D printers have become the “go to” purchases for maker classrooms and other learning spaces.

In my opinion, neither of these would be my first choice for a beginning makerspace, especially one on a limited budget.

Today I got the question from a middle school, “We were going to get some MaKey MaKeys, but my principal heard you can buy an Arduino for $8. That means we can have a classroom set of 30 for less than $250. Is this a good idea? I don’t have a background in electronics or programming.”

Here’s my answer:

Buying an Arduino board alone is just the start. You will have to find or purchase everything else you need part by part – an Arduino is useless without inputs (sensors, buttons, knobs) and outputs (motors, lights, speakers, displays). Depending on your level of electronics knowledge, this could be easy or very tricky! You can fry the Arduino if you connect the wrong parts.

We recommend purchasing kits for first timers so that you get the exact parts you need for a set of experiments. After you use them with students, you can see what you need in the long run. Here’s one kit that’s good for beginners from Sparkfun Electronics (be sure to get an educator discount).

LAST BUT NOT LEAST –  I’m not sure that Arduino is your best place to start. The coding environment will be a challenge for beginner programmers. (Now, there may be a student or two who will just “get it” immediately – but that’s not evidence that it’s the best way to start everyone). I still would consider MaKey MaKey to get your feet wet, or if you really want to tackle sensors and motors, I would look at the Hummingbird Robotics Kit.

The Hummingbird Kit comes with the exact motors, lights, and sensors you need, plus is configured so there is no chance of blowing anything out if things are mis-connected. The Hummingbird can be used with the Scratch programming language, which will be MUCH more accessible for MOST students. It can also be programmed with Python, Processing, and even works as an Arduino with the Arduino programming language, so you are getting the best of both.

Purchasing 30 Arduinos is absolutely the wrong way to go. Without the additional electronic components, they are worthless.

ISTE 2015: Ready for Making?

ISTE 2015 will be June 27-July 1 in Philadelphia, PA. This is an annual “big event” for technology loving educators, with upwards of 15,000 attendees and a huge vendor floor for new edu-gizmos and gadgets.

Two years ago, the word “maker” was barely found on the ISTE program. I believe that my session and Gary Stager’s were the only ones! But in recent years, more and more educators have found that the mindset of the “maker movement” resonates with them. New materials can invigorate project-based learning, and the global maker community is a vibrant learning space that inspires and surprises.

This year’s schedule has a wide array of opportunities to learn more or get started with “making” in the classroom. There’s even a search filter for the topic. Select “Constructivist Learning/ Maker Movement” and 63 sessions, posters, and workshops appear! That’s like a billion trillion percent increase over a couple of years (I swear! Do the math! OK… maybe I’m exaggerating, but it’s because I’m excited this is getting so much attention.)

Search for yourself (select from the Focus/Topic on the left)

So, no need for me to make a list of all these sessions like I’ve done in past years – but here are my and Gary’s events at ISTE. Come find me and say hi!

My events and sessions

Sunday June 28

** Update – SOLD OUT – sorry! 🙁 ** – Gary Stager and I will be hosting a day called “Making, Learning, Fun!” from 9AM – 3PM at Maggiano’s Little Italy (2 blocks from the Conference Center) with fabulous maker activities, great food, and a free copy of the new book “The Invent to Learn Guide to Fun”.  Don’t miss out – very limited space! Click here.

Monday June 29

The Maker Movement: A Global Revolution Goes to School Monday, June 29, 2:30–3:30 pm Sylvia Martinez  PCC Ballroom A

LOL@ISTE Again: Yes, This Will Be on the Test! Monday, June 29, 8:30–9:30 am Cathie Norris, Elliot Soloway, Gary Stager, Michael Jay, Saul Rockman, Sean McDonough

Making, Love and Learning Monday, June 29, 11:00 am–12:00 pm Gary Stager

Is It Time to Give Up on Computers in Schools? Monday, June 29, 12:45–1:45 pm Audrey Watters, David Thornburg, Gary Stager, Wayne D’Orio, Will Richardson

Tuesday June 30

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

Mobile Learning Playground: Block Party at the Makerspace Tuesday, June 30, 9:30 am–1:00 pm
I’ll be there from 11AM – 11:30 AM talking about “Getting Started with Making in the Classroom”

See you there!

Making for All: How to Build an Inclusive Makerspace – EdSurge article

The Maker Movement has crept into the consciousness of schools in the past few years. For some, it’s a wake up call that over-tested, over-scheduled young people are not going to become the creative, enthusiastic learners we all hope to nurture. For others, it’s a personal reconnection to our collective, deeply-felt human impulses to create, invent, and shape the world. Makerspaces, genius hour, design thinking, and other frameworks can help make these ideas come to life in classrooms, libraries, museums, and community centers. But are these innovations accessible to everyone, to every child?

I just wrote an article for EdSurge, Making for All: How to Build an Inclusive Makerspace showcasing several makerspaces around the world that intertwine making with empowerment for all citizens. The article concludes tips for building an inclusive, welcoming program no matter the size, budget, or location.

The idea of inclusion is not only important for community organizations or schools serving underserved populations. Every makerspace should be aware of their capacity to serve all people: children and adults, all genders, all backgrounds, and those who are interested in the arts, engineering, or both. Even in the best-resourced maker environments, there should be constant vigilance about the assumptions that are made about the people who might want to use them.

To create inclusive experiences in schools, educators should consider these factors:

  • Empower students not just to be passive objects of the lessons, but to include them as allies and advocates for making things that matter to them.
  • Culturally responsive, situated, and relevant doesn’t mean asking students to write hip hop lyrics about the scientific method. But it doesn’t mean ignoring hip hop either. Seeing cultural practices in a maker light can open doors and blur the lines between teachers and learners.
  • Sensitivity to surroundings. Research shows that girls react to surroundings that reflect stereotypical “hacker” culture by denying that they are interested in science and engineering. If you aren’t sure what vibe your classroom or makerspace is communicating, ask some kids.
  • Reduce competition. Both overt contests and more subtle competition, like competition caused by a lack of adequate materials and tools, can reduce participation of girls. It can also be a barrier for beginners and students who don’t see themselves as “technical.” The competition aspect raises the stakes to a level that is too risky for students to jump in and try something they may actually enjoy.
  • Don’t advantage one kind of building over another. Robots are cool, but the same technologies of micro-controllers, sensors, motors, and lights could make smart clothes, a useful invention for an elderly aunt, or better still, something no one has thought of before. Provide incentives, multiple on-ramps, praise, and glory for all kinds of making.

There are many, many examples of makerspaces, both community and school-based, that work to empower everyone, not just those who want to build robots. Creating these experiences means that everyone can benefit from the learning that happens when hands-on is combined with heads-in. Makerspaces should be about empowering people, all people, to experiment with ways to make sense of the world, to make the world a better places, and to make meaning in their lives.

Read the whole article