Recently, I was a guest on the No Such Thing podcast hosted by Marc Lesser. Marc is Chief Learning Officer of MOUSE, a national youth development non-profit.
MOUSE designs computer science and STEM curriculum and engages students through the Design League and maker events.
MOUSE does similar work to Generation YES, where I was the president for over a decade. Both organizations support students as learners and leaders in their schools and communities. It was great to talk to Marc about my background in engineering, the 2nd Edition of Invent To Learn, how schools can be a glorious explosion of interesting things, and the (hopefully) lasting impact of Maker Education.
From Sylvia Martinez, co-author of the groundbreaking book Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, comes Making and Makerspaces in Education, a concise yet comprehensive quick-reference tool that draws on lessons from the Maker Movement to help educators create classrooms and schools that offer engaging hands-on, minds-on learning experiences for students in grades K-12.
This 6 page laminated guide helps educators get started with making, offering a framework for planning the logistics, student experience, and space design, with an eye toward building inclusive makerspaces. It provides practical guidance on planning a makerspace and makerspace program, with detailed recommendations for:
Projects and logistics;
Tools and materials;
Other features of the guide include:
General considerations for materials to collect and technology to buy for makerspaces.
Specific recommendations for free, low-cost, and “worth spending money on” tools and technology for grades pre-K-4, upper elementary and middle school, and high schools.
“In our research, we observed the potential of makerspaces to improve engagement with English language learners (ELL) and students facing disciplinary issues. First-generation English learners expressed greater agency and self-confidence from their experience in makerspaces. These students felt empowered to work on new language skills in the open and collaborative environment through conversations with their peers. Student interviewees suggested that working on creative problem-solving projects reduced the fear of making mistakes when speaking out loud, fostering greater fluency and retention:
ELL students referenced reduced anxiety with language around school activities based on collaboration in makerspaces.
ELL students referenced using technical manuals as part of their literacy development.
ELL students referenced using technical manuals as part of their literacy development.
ELL students expressed being more comfortable using their native language to problem solve or complete assignments in the makerspace than in other STEM settings.
Teachers also frequently referenced specific changes in behavior in their ELL students from makerspace participation, leading them to believe that engagement had improved.”
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.
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.
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.
Soldering is a way to join electronic components by melting metal to join the parts, so that when it cools, your parts are strongly connected—both electronically and physically.
Soldering is sometimes avoided in school makerspaces because it seems too technical or perhaps unsafe. But soldering is a way to continue an iterative process of building circuits with more reliability and good visibility into how things are connected.
One of the most important engineering principles when building things with electronics is how reliable your physical and mechanical connections are in your circuit. The thrill of getting a circuit to work can be immediately undone when it fails in mysterious ways because the connections are weak. It also makes troubleshooting circuits more difficult when you constantly have to wonder if the components are even connected, much less doing what you expect.
As a metaphor, the solder builds a bridge at the atomic level for the electrons to walk across—those lazy electrons! When your parts are just touching, even if you hold them tightly, there is always a microscopic chasm for electrons to cross, and they won’t do it if they can avoid it. If you are teaching about electricity as movement of electrons, this reinforces your lesson. (Even if you aren’t there yet, you can just say that the electricity won’t jump across empty space, even spaces so small we can’t see them, and leave the atomic stuff for another day.)
There are a number of ways to make a circuit by putting the components in close physical proximity—wrapping wires as tightly as you can, tape, sticky copper tape, tightly sewing conductive thread, holding things together with your fingers, binder clips, alligator clips, etc. Those are all good ways to start, because they are immediate and easily changeable. But hopefully you don’t stop there—the next step is to build circuits that are more complex and/or more permanent. Breadboards are good for that, but introduce another way for things to fail—bad jumper wires, incorrect placement, knocking the parts loose by accident, etc. Anyone who has every tried to use a breadboard on a moving robot can testify that the connections are never permanent. And it’s also a level of abstraction that can confuse a beginner. I believe that soldering is much simpler and easier to learn than breadboarding.
Soldering is a skill that improves with practice—there are ways to make the joins better—and of course you can learn to not burn yourself and others. There are other skills for the teacher to learn and share—kinds of solder, different soldering irons, safety concerns, the mysteries of flux, and the joys of unsoldering. There are lots of good guides and videos available online to get started.
Soldering is useful for simple circuits, even just a few LEDs and wires can be joined quickly for a huge improvement in reliability. It also works for circuits with copper tape and (some) conductive thread (here’s a trick). Soldering does not require a printed circuit board. If you are building fun paper circuits, a simple next step once your circuit is working is to reinforce the places where the LEDs touch the copper tape with a bit of solder. The reward will be a much more reliable project that will last even when it’s taken home or put on display.
Using soldering as a solution to the problem of unreliable circuits teaches students that engineering is a continuing effort to solve the small problems as you make progress toward bigger goals. That means beginners absolutely SHOULD start off WITHOUT soldering so that they actually run into the problem and authentically need a solution.
If you are considering introducing students to soldering, know that all of this gets better and easier with practice, but the bottom line is that while we wait for someone to invent conductive superglue, soldering is the best way to create reliable circuits and successful electronic projects.
What is the connection between creativity and making? Is all “making” creative? Is creativity expressed solely through these types of experiences? Do maker experiences give kids the chance to be creative and a structure to be creative within? Are we just parsing words?
I don’t want to spend time with dictionary definitions, suffice it to say that in everyday English, while creating is a synonym for making, they aren’t the same. Creativity is about imagination and ideas, the ability to make and think about new things in new ways.
Interest in the maker movement by educators is about creativity, yes, but also about honoring how people really learn. We can look to giants of education like Piaget who said, “knowledge is a consequence of experience” or Maria Montessori, who honored the child’s intellect expressed through play, or hundreds of other really smart people from John Dewey to Mr. Rogers. We can make schools places where these powerful ideas come to life.
In recent years, we’ve ignored a lot of this simply because it’s more efficient and cheaper to ask kids to sit quietly while a teacher lectures. The problem is that’s not how people learn. And in a blind pursuit of the false goal of “rigor”, we’ve pushed this nonsense on younger and younger students, and then complain that kids aren’t creative!
I think the interest in the maker movement is hopefully a return to our senses that children learn best by doing, by diving deeply into ideas that interest them, exploring interesting things, and being surrounded by people who care about them and want to explore interesting ideas with them. Creativity and making are deeply intertwined. But simply having children touch things other than pencils is not what “making” should mean. When we talk about making in schools, hopefully creativity and learning are coming along for the ride.
Connecting creativity with making has multiple benefits for schools:
Rejecting the idea that creativity is something that happens after the “real work” is done, like decoration.
The ideal of “openness” is powerful and modern. Students can share designs, code, and ideas and remix into their own inventions. Modern creativity means understanding how to share things with the world.
The inexpensive yet futuristic tools and materials can be easily learned and used by students to make subjects come alive. The ease-of-use creates new opportunities for project-based learning and iterative design. Creativity can be expressed in lower risk, lower stakes ways.
The “get it done” ethos of the maker movement is extremely valuable for all students in all subjects. Constraints are not impediments to creativity, in fact the opposite is true. Creativity comes in making do, making it up, and making it happen.
The focus on “making” rather than planning or reporting is a breath of fresh air for students who are increasingly getting fewer opportunities for hands-on experiences. Students who are worried that they are not creative or artistic need more opportunities to show what they know.
The wealth of projects can invigorate classrooms, and also capture the imagination of teachers who are looking for real things for their students to do. Creativity is enhanced when the whole community is excited and engaged. Enthusiasm is contagious!
Creativity is about creating things, of course, but also about developing the mindset and confidence to trust yourself in the act of creation. We do kids a tremendous disservice when we overplan every bit of work that they do. I think the message of the maker movement is a reminder for teachers to allow for more student agency, including more time. We need to give students time to step back and look at their work (work that they care about) and think about what to do next, just like a painter steps back and looks at their painting. This is not celebrating “failure” – a painter is not fixing the painting, or failing and correcting, but absorbing, reflecting, and continuing on.
So if this connection between creativity, making, and learning isn’t new, why all the fuss?
Part of this is human nature. We love new things and new ideas. It’s a terrific instinct to keep things fresh and enthusiastically embrace the future. However, that falls apart when the focus jumps from one shiny object to the next. Educators are rightly skeptical of the latest fad that comes and goes with the wind. A few meetings, plans that never get implemented, boxes of cool stuff that go directly from the loading dock to the supply closet… and then some other initiative careens into view and the process starts over again.
With the maker movement being seen as the “new new” thing in education, it’s a worry to think that this is simply part of the hype and hide cycle. I do see signs of this—teachers being told to “do maker” without any changes to schedules, materials, resources, or even time to collaborate with their colleagues about what this actually means. It’s human nature to believe that there is a magic wand out there that will make hard work unnecessary. One only has to look at the diet or beauty product industry to understand how desperately people want fast and easy change. Unfortunately, this is a shortcut to nowhere that will never result in real change.
In any implementation of new practices to make schools better, there are always a wide range of results. When you’ve been around a while, you’ve seen it all – every extreme and combination of intention, implementation, context, logistics, and luck. But the patterns often remain the same.
In the best of all worlds, students are doing challenging and creative work on authentic problems with lots of materials, time, and guidance from engaged and empowered educators. However, this requires time and trust that teachers can learn to create these experiences, and trust that students are learners with good ideas of their own.
The most important part of creativity is trust in the creative process and the creative instincts of humans of all ages. That should be a fundamental part of making as well.
I’m heading out for a string of presentations and workshops – hope to see old friends and new!
ICE 2018 – Feb 26 (Chicago) I’m part of an “All-Star” lineup of presenters who are participating in the Illinois Computing Educators conference. Instead of one keynote they are bringing back keynotes from previous years to do panels and featured presentations. It’s a bit embarrassing to call yourself an “All-Star” but that’s their term, not mine! Check out the whole list and join us!
Then I’m flying straight to Italy where Gary Stager and I will keynote a School Innovation conference in Modena and lead a workshop in Bologna on March 2 & 3. Then we hit the road (by train) for lectures at Universities in Padua, Vicenza, Venice, and Pistoia. Finally a roundtable at the U.S. Embassy in Rome with an innovation policy advocacy working group.
Oh, and in between I’m flying to Valencia, Spain to keynote a conference there! INTED 2018 will be March 5-7 and I’ll be keynoting on March 5.
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.
You may have heard that it’s best to “ease” into hands-on project-based learning at the start of the school year. Maybe you feel your students aren’t ready, need some skills development, or just need to have a few weeks of settling down before getting started with more independent work.
I think this is a big mistake.
Why? Two reasons: habits are formed and messages matter starting day one.
If you are looking at making and makerspace activities as a way to give students more agency over their own learning, why not start building those habits immediately to send that message early and often.
Many teachers feel that they have students who aren’t ready for a more independent approach to learning. However, how will they get ready if they don’t practice it? Many teachers say that students have to be “unschooled” out of practices like constantly expecting to be told what to do. So why not start to build those habits and expectations on day one?
That doesn’t mean that you have to start with a monumental project. Start with something small. Shorter, more contained projects will build their confidence and skills. Mix these projects with less structured time to explore, invent, and tinker. If it’s chaos, you can add some constraints, but don’t give up!
Empowering students to believe in themselves as capable of making things that matter, both in the physical and digital world, is a crucial part of learning.
The message is also going home to parents every day — what they expect to see all year starts today. Explain what you are doing and why, and reinforce that with every communication with parents.
So whatever you call it, making, project-based learning, hands-on, or inquiry learning – the time to start is always NOW!
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
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.