Words matter – gender bias in makerspaces

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Download full report from this site.

In a new study from Drexel University, researchers found that makerspace facilitators betray gender bias when talking about their students.

Instructors primarily referred to male students as “geeks”, “builders” and “designers” (never “boys”), but most frequently referred to female students as “girls” or even, “helpers”.

Making Culture: A National Study of Education Makerspaces

Never. They NEVER referred to the male students as boys. Why? It’s an easy slip to make, reflecting the norm that “boys” are the expected gender, the way things are supposed to be, and girls have to be pointed out.

The problem is, even when it’s unintentional (and the researchers in this study felt it was) it still has impact. If girls feel they are being singled out, even subtly, it can trigger feelings of not belonging, stereotype threat, and other well-documented consequences.

So next time you start to call out, “OK guys…” take a beat and see if there’s something else to say.

If you are thinking, Wow, get off my back, thought police… think about this. You wouldn’t say “Hey gals…” to a mixed gender group, would you? And you definitely wouldn’t say it to a group of all boys. The boys would think that’s an insult, right? Why is being called a girl the ultimate insult for boys, but girls are just supposed to live with being called guys all day every day.

OK folks…. OK class…. OK y’all… it’s not impossible. And it matters.

More from – Making Culture: A National Study of Education Makerspaces

“The sheer number of identity references based entirely upon gender (“girls”) is deeply unsettling. Also note that the use of “boys” in referring to makerspace students did not occur at all in these interviews. This gender imbalance shaped attitudes and activities within the makerspaces:

  • Boys were twice as likely to hold leadership positions in group makerspace activities;
  • Boys were more likely to steer major project topics (robotics challenge, Lego, solar car design);

We also observed a gender disparity in expressed design agency (ability to design or guide project activities) in formal vs. informal learning makerspaces. Boys expressed greater agency in formal spaces whereas girls expressed greater agency in informal spaces.

This evidence suggests a persistent, but possibly unintentional, culture of bias reinforced by makerspace leadership. Research into boys and girls engaging in STEM learning reveals that girls and boys have equal potential to become proficient in STEM subjects (evidenced in our study through nearly equal makerspace participation in grades K-8).

While most leaders believe that makerspaces have the potential to function as a safe space where girls and young women can engage in an open collaborative learning environment while dismantling gender stereotypes, our research also indicates that more must be done to achieve an inclusive culture of gender equity.”

So there is another interesting tidbit. The boys “expressed greater agency” in formal spaces, whereas the girls reversed that role in informal spaces. Why? Perhaps because when it counts, boys are more aggressive in taking control? Or is it that instructors are tipping this balance?

All good research tends to create as many questions as it answers!


Making Culture is the first in-depth examination of K-12 education makerspaces nationwide and was created as part of the ExCITe Center’s Learning Innovation initiative. This report reveals the significance of cultural aspects of making (student interests, real world relevance, and community collaboration) that enable learning. The research highlights how makerspaces foster a range of positive student learning outcomes, but also reflect some of the gaps in inclusion common in the STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) fields. The report was co-authored by Drexel School of Education researchers Dr. Kareem Edouard, Katelyn Alderfer, Professor Brian Smith and ExCITe Center Director Youngmoo Kim.

Meet me at FETC 2019!

I hope to see old friends and new at FETC 2019 in Orlando, January 27-30, 2019. I’ll be talking STEM/STEAM, Creativity, Making and Makerspaces, PBL for Making, What’s New/What’s Next for STEAM, and more. Use my discount signup page to save an extra 10%!

January 29, 2019 – Tuesday

Book signing – NEW edition Invent to Learn – Main Exhibit Hall

2:30 – 3:00 PM Tuesday Jan 29 – I will be signing copies of the new edition of Invent to Learn.

January 30, 2019 – Wednesday

The Case for Creativity in STEAM

Creativity on display at FabLearn NL 2018

Creativity is not just being artistic or having new ideas. As many schools are working to incorporate STEM and STEAM into the classroom, design and creativity are the key to real and relevant experiences in the classroom.

Adding more and different technology to the classroom toolkit invites students of different abilities and interests to experience STEAM subjects. This creates classroom conditions that invite technology understanding and creativity for all students, even those who think they “don’t like technology”.

In many cases, digital tools, electronics, and programming are seen as something only a few students (the “nerds”) want to try. Yet these are powerful learning opportunities that all students should engage in.

Key ideas

Design is a way to make thinking visible, connecting abstract pedagogy to the real experiences of children. The A in STEAM is not about decorating science projects or coloring math worksheets, but a way to add design and design’s cousin, aesthetics, into classroom projects.

Next Generation Science Standards provide new directions for engineering practices. Again, design is the key to this. Design is the process of engineering. It provides a framework to solve problems, using the science, math, and technology that students learn. These standards are not “business as usual” for schools. Looking at them as simply a rearrangement of existing curriculum ignores the revolutionary addition of engineering design to the expectations for science curriculum.

Formative assessment strategies that strengthen the project process in real time as students work through design and engineering projects.

Inclusivity that ensures that new technology and engineering experiences invite and support students who might not have the background or inclination to see themselves as engineers.

Equity in STEM areas for girls and other under-represented groups is not a matter of finding the young people who can do the work asked by the current curriculum, but to find new curricular areas and connections to the interesting and relevant STEM and STEAM opportunities found in the real world.

Everyone has a role to play

Leaders keep the vision alive in the face of multiple distractions. They allow new ideas to flourish and provide support for educators to work out the details, while still moving the ball forward.

Coaches help both the early adopters and the cautious “this too shall pass” reluctants to create a shared, achievable vision.

Teachers find ways to weave the old and new together in a coherent way for students. This means being a learner, leader, and a designer. There is no question that this in itself takes creativity. Teachers are asked to do more with less, and to make more time where there is none, all the time staying current with research and personalizing learning for every student. What could be more creative than that?

In the quest for STEAM, there will be tensions and questions. Can science be creative? Doesn’t math always have one right answer? Aren’t basic facts and rote memorization the ways that science has always been taught? Where will we find the time to do more in depth projects that give students creative opportunities? If students are doing more creative and personalized work, how will we assess it and meet learning objectives? Am I creative enough to make this work?

And yet, we know that students thrive when given the opportunity to do relevant, meaningful, and creative work. Together, we must push against paralyzing fear that there are too many variables and not enough time to figure it all out.

We have a ways to go

Creativity is often misunderstood as simply a personal attribute – you are a creative person or you aren’t.  Yet the word is crucial as schools struggle to implement STEAM programs that are defined only as subjects – not as mindsets. The “A” in STEAM is incredibly important – it is the verb of the sentence, and at its heart is the creative process. It is understood that artists have a creative process, but less well understood that scientists, engineers, and mathematicians do as well.

When schools work to understand what STEAM really means, there are certainly parts that seem easier than others. All schools have math and science classes. Technology is taken care of as we increasingly adopt computers into classroom practices. Engineering is a small but growing option in many schools.

However, we have work still to do. Science and math classes need to adopt modern ways that real scientists and mathematicians work. You can’t just put a sign up that says “STEAM Academy.” Students want and respond to science classes that are real and relevant, where they can engage in making things that make the world a better place, and in doing so, learn about the underlying laws of the world around them.

Technology is not only about computers, but about the basic human desire to change the world. Engineering is not just a college major, but a way for even young children to design and build things that help them make sense of the world.

When all of this is taken into consideration, you cannot help but notice that creativity, meaning literally to make things, is a key component. Design is the process of engineering and technology is the tool. Creativity is the mindset.

Recasting STEAM this way also invites more students who are not the “usual suspects” into the fantastic world of STEAM.

ISTE sessions – Chicago in June

I’ll be speaking at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) June 24-27, 2018.

STEAM to the Future: 50 Years in 50 Minutes
Tuesday, June 26, 10:15–11:15 am
Location: Available in May

Let’s time travel 50 years forward to see what science, technology, engineering and math will be like, and the prominent role that the arts, design and creativity will play. This session will provide entertaining and thought-provoking insight into the challenges of adapting today’s classroom and curriculum for the future.

STEAM: The TEA Stands for CrEATivity
Tuesday, June 26, 11:45 am–12:45 pm
Location: Available in May

Creativity is not just being artistic or having new ideas. As many schools are working to incorporate STEM and STEAM into the classroom, design and creativity are the keys to real and relevant experiences in the classroom.

Video – Maker Movement in Education: Keynote from INTED

This video is a keynote from the INTED conference in Valencia Spain on the topic of “A Global Revolution Goes to School: The Maker Movement”

This 30 minute keynote covers why the maker movement is something schools should pay attention to, and how to get started using the maker mindset and tools to revolutionize all subjects. The power of design as a way for students to learn is just beginning to be recognized in schools around the world. As innovative schools develop makerspaces and more hands-on curriculum, students benefit from real and relevant exploration of STEM and other subjects.

STEM: GOOD. Lying to kids: BAD

“When it gets generalized to all of STEM, it’s misleading,” said Mr. Teitelbaum, a senior research associate in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “We’re misleading a lot of young people.”  — from “Where the STEM Jobs Are (and Where They Aren’t)” NY Times 11/1/17STEM jobs vs demand

Here’s the problem with intensively focusing on STEM and STEAM as primarily about students getting good jobs in the future. The jobs simply aren’t there.

I’ve never advocated for STEM experiences and classes because of jobs. We should teach children how amazing the world is AND that they can have a hand in exploring, discovering, and understanding the world. I’ve asked audiences worldwide to try this mental reversal – if there AREN’T amazing STEM jobs out there, should we not teach science?

And now it turns out that this is true. So let’s review:

STEM: GOOD. Lying to kids: BAD

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 “scoop.it” 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