I’m starting a maker program…. questions and answers

I recently got an email from a Chicago Public School teacher. She asked:

I recently read a book you co-authored, “Invent to Learn”.  I am a Chicago Public School teacher.  Until this year, I worked as a special education teacher, but I lobbied hard to create a STEM program at my school and this year I am the STEM teacher.   The program is truly mine to build and I would really love the chance to pick your brain about your experiences.  I am working to build a school Makerspace and the students are absolutely pumped.

She asked me some specific questions, and with her permission, I’m sharing her questions and my answers here.

Any mistakes you can advise me to avoid in developing our maker program?  Any mistakes you recommend that I make?

I think waiting for the perfect can get in the way of doing something good. The iterative design process isn’t just good for kids – it’s a way to feel justified in doing things and then making them better. Your process and choices will improve as time goes on.

The mistake to avoid is stopping the growth process or worse, giving up. I hope you have supportive leadership who will understand that it’s a process, not a perfection factory.

I now feel like I am teaching kids to understand things that I don’t quite understand myself (it is impossible for me to be a content expert in all of the areas the students are pursuing).  While I am excited about that, it is also scary.  How do I know if students are fostering misconceptions?  Should I be concerned about that?  Am I under-qualified for this job?

One of the things I find charming about having so many new things to explore is that it means that nobody can be an expert. Really, everyone is in the same boat you are! They may sound more experienced, but the stuff was literally invented yesterday, so it’s just a matter of trying things out.

That said, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t learn stuff! Build on your strengths and interests, and don’t be afraid to say to the kids – “I don’t know, let’s figure it out!” Model adaptability, curiosity, and determination for them and that’s the biggest lesson they will learn.

The thing you CAN be an expert in is teaching, and being the anthropologist and archivist for learning. Your role should be to carefully watch and listen and to help kids make their private thinking public. Some misconceptions you should be able to catch, some you won’t. It helps to have people who know about topics that aren’t in your wheelhouse, working with your students, and  listening as your students are showing and discussing their work or doing presentations.

If you weren’t concerned about this, I’d worry! Very few people are walking encyclopedias, that’s not the definition of good teaching anyway.

By the way, if your kids are old enough to learn something, they are old enough to figure it out in the first place. Allow them access to online expertise and books. Some will get it faster than others, and let them be peer mentors and local gurus. It helps you to not be the bottleneck of expertise, and models student-centered learning. “Go see Susie, she’s can show you how to solder.”

Say you were hiring to fill a STEM position at your school, what would you be looking for in a candidate?

Curiosity, adaptability, and likes kids. Ask, “what’s the last book on education you read? What’s your philosophy of learning?”

Working as a change agent can be incredibly rewarding and it can also be incredibly stressful.  What advice do you have for maintaining stamina and preventing burnout?

Be more relentless than you think you are capable of… but don’t be a martyr. I wrote more about this here: Go Ahead, Be  Unreasonable.

Build on what you (and the school) do well already. Choose your battles and work with the living.

Throughout the process of creating this program, I have been interviewing practicing engineers.  Many of them say that one of the most important qualities they value in their employees and colleagues is the ability to work in an interdisciplinary team of experts.  I am trying to structure some learning experiences where students will select an area of specialty based on their interests, dig deep to develop some expertise, and then come together with a mixed team to complete a final engineering challenge.

a.) Does this seem like a worthwhile endeavor?

Yes, but… forced collaboration is just as silly as no collaboration. Perhaps encourage teams, but don’t require them. If the collaboration is really worth it, it will happen. I don’t think it will help to try to predict exactly what expertise will be needed for a project until it’s a actually in process.

What about holding off on the selection of interests until the challenge actually starts? Start with the challenge, then divide and conquer.

b.) Based on your experience, do any projects (substantial, sharable, personally meaningful) come to mind that would lend themselves to this kind of structure?  I need help developing some good prompts (in addition to the awesome prompts for robotics in your book).

Here are some prompts for 3D printing.

Read up on Gary Stager’s “and then…” strategy for prompt creation

I am getting lots of pressure to post content-learning objectives in my classroom.  That is tricky when students may be working on different content areas.  I am pushing back a bit and trying to convince my administration to accept process-learning objectives instead (our focus areas in our makerspace are creativity, collaboration, communication, persistence, and problem-solving).  Should my objectives be my prompts (that doesn’t feel right, somehow)?

a.) Am I off base here — should I be more focused on content objectives?  

If you are working under Common Core or other similar standards, take a look at the overall goals in the first paragraphs and pages. They often have language that supports the process skills. So the argument is, I AM implementing learning objectives, ALL of them, not just the ones at the bottom bullet point level of the document.

And if you are really being told to literally post them, I think this is a waste of time and a great misunderstanding of research that says that kids do better if they have clear goals. Writing incomprehensible sentences on the board does not accomplish this.

Mandating the Daily Posting of Objectives and Other Dumb Ideas by Grant Wiggins

b.) If you were an administrator, what learning objectives would you be looking for when you walk into a learning space?

I’d talk to the kids to see if they are motivated and can use appropriate language to explain what they are doing. I’d look for authentic student work on the walls and shelves.

In our learning adventures so far, the students and I have discovered that making and tinkering often result in loose ends and dangling possibilities that are not resolved in a timely way at the end of the marking period.  While we are ok with that, I think we are really stressing out some of the adults around us.  Any advice for helping them cope and perhaps helping me respond to the question “how in the world do you grade that?”.  I am working hard to make the student’s thinking visible to me in my role as a “researcher” and valuing process.  How do I make that thinking visible to others as well?

I hear you. Many teachers incorporate documentation/reflection activities into project-based learning assignments. That’s not a perfect solution, as there’s only so much time in the day and the time kids spend on documentation is time not spent on the project. If there is documentation required as an authentic part of the project, that helps (like writing directions for others to use an invention.) I think getting video is a good thing – but then again, you have to edit it. Having the adults actually talk to the kids I think is the best thing.

It’s interesting that no one seems to want to dive into other forms of assessment that they are familiar with. For example, have your colleagues ever demanded to see a written test and asked you to justify why one question is worth 3 points and another worth 5 points? Or why the midterm counts as 30% of the grade rather than 50%?

It’s because this is new (to them, anyway) that it attracts attention. It could be an opportunity to ask your colleague to sit with you and do the evaluation with you. What factors do you look for? What’s the evidence of learning that you see? If they are asking the question honestly, then they should be willing to take the time to hear the whole answer and have a conversation.

Students have such HUGE ideas that they want to pursue (like creating a computer operating system!!!).  Any strategies for helping them to break something like that into manageable chunks without squishing their ideas?

That’s a tough one. You want them to shoot for the moon, but get something done too, not just be hitting their heads against the wall. Breaking down a problem is one strategy, having a bag of good prompts is another. Have a semi-firm timeline for when the research stops and the “do” starts. And you will get better at it too.

Have you seen STEM programs that effectively incorporated service learning to help students solve community problems?  Any suggestions for creating a culture of giving/service?

Most of the STEM focused programs I’ve seen are more about advocacy or solving problems, not so much in helping others. Like writing a proposal to the city council for a bike path. Tackling building projects supports STEM well, and even if the problem is too hard to really be solved, you can learn about the limitations of science or materials, or other hard facts.

It’s tougher to design a program around big social issues, like solving poverty or homelessness or even grander, like solving global warming. You want issues that you have some hope of having an impact, that the students can relate to and wrap their heads around.

But whatever it is, the STEM component needs to be maintained by asking the students to predict, measure, and analyze what they do. Weigh the trash collected, measure the heat saved by installing insulation and calculate the electricity and money saved. If you help someone, figure out a way to measure that impact, even if you are taking surveys and turning feelings into data like a “happiness index”.

Service learning is a terrific way to add relevance to projects, which is a key for engaging girls. The research supporting service-learning in education is also great.

Right now, I am the embodiment of “the special bunker” that meets for “42-minutes per week”.  I recognize that it is not ideal, but it is all that I can get right now.  How can I go about changing that?  Any advice for spreading constructionism and making to others?

Yes, we did say in the book that the worry about creating a makerspace is that it becomes an excuse not to change anything else. Then again, you do what you can do and keep the forward momentum going. Seymour Papert called it the Someday…Monday problem and said that what you do on Monday should at least be on the path to Someday. It’s a journey, and sometimes is a longer journey then we would like.

It’s also a show, not a tell. Develop student allies and advocates, partner with teachers who are willing, and find parents who “get it.” Call the newspaper and the local cable channel EVERY MONTH.

Find out if your admins want you to spread the word, and hold them to actually supporting it with PD and collaboration time. It’s unreasonable to expect that constructionism will just leak out of your classroom without the administration providing leadership, focus, and resources (including time and money).

Do you know any educators in the Chicago area that I should connect with?

Check the list at http://k12makers.org/ and join this Google group: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/k-12-fablabs

Anything else you think I should know or that you want to tell me?  

Start with kids doing stuff and work from there. Just do it! Connect with others who you can collaborate, brainstorm with, and share ideas (see above).

These educators aren’t in your area, but they document their process nicely –




Consider keeping your own blog – make it private if you have to, but the journal of your process will be useful to you as time goes on.

Best of luck,


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.