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Meet the Makers

The DIY ethos has spilled into schools, reminding educators how much students can learn when they use their hands.

If you’re an administrator, chances are you were in high school before classes like auto shop, woodshop, and home economics were phased out. They were called vocational ­classes back then, and they operated parallel to core academics like math and science—but they never crossed over. In fact, at my high school, shop classes were popular with the kids who struggled with academics precisely because they weren’t as demanding.

The shift away from vocational education by the mid-1990s was a shift toward rote academics and standardized testing. Nearly two decades later, the pendulum is beginning to swing back. In a growing number of classrooms, teachers and administrators are putting kids’ hands to work, applying the old principle of learning-by-doing. The practice has a banal name—“making”—but it’s gotten a big boost of late. The White House hosted a Google Hangout on the maker movement last March. MIT recently announced that it is accepting maker portfolios as part of undergraduate applications. And Harvard’s Graduate School of Education is studying the trend, including taking a deep look at the benefits of tinkering, improvising, and experimentation.

What’s all the buzz about? Besides fixing cars and making wooden pen holders, haven’t kids been making things and learning from their experiences since the days of sticks and rocks? What’s different about making now, in the age of laptops and 3D printers?

“What we’re seeing is a resurgence in experiential learning,” says Jim Hirsch, former associate superintendent for academic and technological services at Plano ISD in Texas. (He retired in December 2013.) “Campus leaders have the confidence to go back to learning that’s better connected to the way brains work.

”Today’s makerspaces are “firmly in the 21st century,” says Eric Sheninger, principal of New Jersey’s New Milford High School. “It is a mash-up of differentiated learning experiences combining traditional elements supported by new technologies. Much more responsibility is given to students in the modern makerspace for their own learning than in the past, when activities were much more teacher driven.”

Back to the Brain
it’s easy to find grade-level lesson plans and rubrics for hands-on activities like bridge building to help teach the principles of engineering. But at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, teachers give as little advance instruction as possible before students go to work building their own suspension or cantilever spans.

Lighthouse, a K–12 program serving a diverse population in the city’s downtown area, has incorporated making as a school-wide vision, and it has integrated the approach into the core curriculum.

“As teachers, we have a tendency to want to help kids, which is good. But helping doesn’t always mean telling them the answers,” says science teacher Aaron Vanderwerff. “When we do bridge building, we don’t tell them to follow the directions. We don’t tell them to use triangles. We give them Popsicle sticks and glue and some quick techniques. We let the kids try things out and give them time to try multiple iterations.”

Making may have been going on for a while at schools like Lighthouse, but recent science has helped push educators back to the woodshop. And brain research over the past five years has exploded understanding of how we learn by making things.

“This is learning where students make something, make mistakes, and remake in an iterative process,” says Hirsch. “There is no recovery from mistakes on a standardized test. Our students haven’t been given this opportunity since the mid-’90s.”

Technology has helped spur the trend as well. While many classrooms that are dedicated to making feature hammers, lathes, and sewing machines, the roots of the approach are in the DIY movement that also led to hacker and “fab” (fabrication) labs, small-scale workshops undertaking digital fabrication, popularized by MIT. Most labs have 3D printers and stress the idea of rapid prototyping—make a product, test it, and remake it. (To learn more, go to fabfoundation.org.)

There are no statistics to show how the making trend is growing, because making is so broadly defined. In lots of schools there are a few teachers who integrate project-based learning. But a growing number of schools are embracing a vision that integrates hands-on practice with content-area instruction.

“Makerspaces are very motivating,” says Michelle Hlubinka, education director for Make magazine. “It’s authentic learning. Teachers are constantly looking at the whole kid, what they’re struggling with, and how to use their interests in those areas where they’re struggling.”

Start in the Middle

Eric Bredder teaches technology and engineering at Sutherland Middle School in Charlottesville, Virginia. In his classroom, students work on their own projects—programming computers, building instruments, making cardboard furniture—or on core class assignments. With help from Bredder and a staff science teacher, two eighth graders recently built a Vail telegraph, using CAD software and a 3D printer to replicate the first transmission by Morse code.

“In my class, students can choose their projects. As long as I have the materials, they can do it,” says Bredder. “This gives me the freedom to push them into the experience of the learning.

”Albemarle, the district in which Bredder teaches, made a decision to put makerspaces in its middle schools first. Partnering with the University of Virginia, the district has taught middle school engineering teachers to work with core content teachers, training them in mechatronics and rapid prototyping. The goal is to offer the courses across all middle schools and then scale up to the high school level.

“We built out from the middle schools, where students are not constrained by units of credit,” says Chad Ratliff, assistant director of instructional programs. “Every kid has a legitimate opportunity to take these classes.” Though most of the collaboration is between technology, math, and science teachers, some language arts teachers are getting involved, too.

“We started small so we can ask ourselves as we go how it’s working,” Ratliff says. “Is there too much engineering in the science class? Too much science in engineering? How do we balance the school?”

A School Makeover
Academy High School in Plano opened this year, accepting only ninth graders. Up to 150 new ninth graders will be added each year until there are four full grades. With a $5 million grant from Texas Instruments and a year of training under the staff’s collective belts, Plano aims to reinvent school with a firm focus on making and hands-on learning.

The school building was once a Southwestern Bell call center. The spaces are large and airy, with no walls to separate groups of students as they work on projects that integrate science, math, art, and design. Facilitators (they’re not called teachers) float around, offering open-ended guidance and, in some cases, instruction. Tools ranging from 3D printers and computers to band saws, lathes, and drills are readily available.

The biggest investment so far has been in teacher training. Faculty—who are, for the most part, experienced teachers from the district—spent a year learning how to integrate hands-on learning across all content areas before they opened the school’s doors in the fall; they traveled to California to observe similar programs in Napa and San Diego.

“All of the 21st-century schools we worked with propose a truly interdisciplinary approach to hands-on learning, but they don’t really pull it off,” Hirsch says. “They couldn’t get their English and social studies teachers to embed science and math. Ours have stayed together.”

Plano’s year of professional learning took place in interdisciplinary teams. At Academy High, teachers are no longer content experts. “We forced the issue,” says Hirsch. “We forced our content areas to stay together to make the learning process as inclusive an experience as possible.” It’s difficult, he says, especially in math, where students come in at different levels. But because the goal is for students to see how math and science can be connected to everything else, students are grouped by whom they work best with, not by academic achievement.“

In Plano we have always been able to accelerate kids when they showed ability, but this approach isn’t about acceleration,” Hirsch says. “It’s about doing some physical making every day, working in groups, and doing what they need to do to provide evidence of mastery.”

For TI, the decision to invest in the school was easy, says Trisha Cunningham, the company’s chief citizenship officer. “It’s exciting for us to partner with Plano to create a new learning environment focused on STEM education. It’s a chance for our employees to get actively involved, and it’s important for us because these students are our future workforce.”

New Milford High School just started its makerspace this school year, with library media specialist Laura Fleming using the school’s existing space and resources. “Our makerspace has very much a DIY feel, which has transcended itself into creativity and innovation on the part of the students,” she says.

The space aims to offer students the ability to work with robotics, stop-action animation, 3D printing, wearable technology, and molecular gastronomy, as well as computer programming, coding, and hacking. Both girls and boys use the space every day, and Fleming predicts students’ collaboration will continue to change the space as their work progresses. “I am constantly amazed at the masses of students that are willingly in this space, learning in a self-directed fashion,” says school principal Eric Sheninger.

Is Making Enough?
Some educators worry that the current interest in project-­based learning isn’t supported by adequate content instruction. Creative thinking and experimentation are great as far as they go, they say, but in order to provide equal access to students who might not self-select for a maker high school, the lower-grade content instruction must be rigorous.

“Anything that democratizes access to engineering is good,” says Ben Esner, director of K–12 STEM Education at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. “The trick is, now that we’ve made kids want to do this, how do we get them there? In engineering school, the course of study is tough. If students don’t have basic knowledge of electricity and the principles of physics, then we haven’t done the whole job.”

“There is a connection between making and career and technical education in terms of applied learning and entrepreneurship,” says Stephen DeWitt, deputy executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education. “Both are supportive of multiple pathways of learning. That is one of the things that students get out of it."

—Winter 2014—

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