The maker movement is a relatively recent development in the world. It is a unique combination of DIY building, traditional crafting hobbies, device hacking, and other digital skills. It focuses on the creation of novel items instead of buying what is commercially available. There is also an emphasis on creativity, modification, and applied cutting-edge science. There is no single set of skills, knowledge, or even rules; instead, makers usually form local communities to share ideas, skills, and equipment.
These are usually called Maker-spaces, hacker-spaces, or a myriad of other clever names. TechShop in Downtown San Jose,CA; Fresno Ideaworks in Fresno, CA; and danger!awesome in Cambridge, MA are just a few of a growing list of maker spaces all around the world. These are usually shared spaces with a variety of equipment where people can come together, share ideas, and build stuff, usually for a nominal monthly fee.
Our local maker-space, Fresno Ideaworks provides a wide variety of tools, runs a robotics league, and offers regular meetups and classes year-round on a variety of topics. They also work with local schools. One local school ran an instrument building class for their students in the space.
Because the maker movement exists to apply technical and scientific knowledge and skills to traditional crafts, many schools are turning to it to teach those technical and scientific skills. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), for example, explicitly call for student-designed experiments and solutions to complex, real-world scientific problems. The maker movement exists precisely to come up with novel solutions to real-world problems. Naturally, educators are turning to makers for ideas about how to teach these skills and develop an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics (STEAM) subjects in students. It is a natural match that should be fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, there are a few complications that have to be addressed before you set students loose on the maker world. We’ll go over them, along with their corresponding strengths now.
The maker movement is defined by its “learn by doing” attitude. This is excellent because in doing and making, kids will develop tangible skills lacking in traditional academic school work. The openness and community-oriented sharing of knowledge shows that, together, we are smarter than any one of us. It emphasizes experimentation and encourages failure. Failure is now an important part of designing a new product. This is very different from traditional linear design principles, where a failure in a prototype might have meant huge sums of money down the drain. Now, with more modern technology, failure just means you need to try it again. Failing and overcoming those problems is an important lesson that standard academic pursuits does not fulfill very well. Failing a class or doing poorly on a test isn’t really fixable. But worst-case scenario when building your own robot is a motor or circuit board burns out. And that just means it is time to figure out what went wrong and fix it — and learn a load more about how it all works while you’re at it!
It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.
The maker movement is largely composed of amateurs working and learning on their own, functionally self-directed and autodidactic. This is a very effective learning method for well-educated, technically savvy adults with a genuine interest in the subject who are common in the maker movement. Unfortunately, your students are not well-educated adults. They are students who have not yet developed all the skills needed to succeed in independent learning. It is not going to be very effective to introduce students to unfamiliar subjects that they might not have any pre-existing interest in, and expect them to perform self-directed study.
A handful will manage it, but in order to effectively complete the kind of individual projects that are valuable for students, more directed instruction will be necessary. An adult with a broad education might be able to figure out coding some simple programs for her pet project with a bit of informal support, but asking a school-age student to do so on their own is asking for too much. Formal instruction, at least through the basics of any technical subject, will be very important to provide extensive support to the students. This might mean a month or more of more formal instruction before students get to work significantly on their independent projects.
It is also important to remember that a student’s ability to navigate and use devices is something of a standard skill these days. But just because students can use an iPad or navigate the Internet without formal instruction does not mean that they have particularly advanced technical skills. Even students who are able to set up wireless networks and other tasks that would have required IT certifications even a decade ago are best classified as very advanced users, not technical wizards. This technical proficiency comes from the fact that today’s students are almost universally digital natives. It is important not to confuse a familiarity with technology with learned technical skills.
Basically, just know all the things.
The other issue a teacher will likely face is the sheer variety of skills required. There are very few people with a background in woodworking, metal machining, programming, electronics manufacturing, sewing, accounting, 3-D modeling, 3-D printing, materials engineering, and effective classroom instruction. The wide variety of skills involved is simply staggering. A teacher simply cannot be an expert in all of these things. Thankfully, that isn’t entirely necessary. The teacher will need only a very basic understanding of a wide variety of skills; one of the strengths of the maker movement is its sense of community support. There are people around you in the community with those skills who are willing to share them. In teaching these maker skills, you are less the source of all knowledge and more a broker for your students and their learning. You teach them what you can and connect them with experts and resources when you don’t have the answers.
The other side of this is that this mentoring process defies age and experience in a way the traditional classroom simply cannot do. There are young makers whose insights are welcome and valued alongside experienced and trained builders, engineers, and tinkerers. Super Awesome Sylvia and Joey Hudy are examples of young makers who share their knowledge freely. Expertise is expertise and you will likely find that you have students who are passionate about a subject and learn all that they can. Let them take the lead and teach their peers (and you!). Seeking out peer knowledge is an ideal outcome. The teacher should never be the font of all knowledge.
I don’t know, so let’s go figure it out.
You probably won’t have all the answers as the teacher, especially if your students are particularly creative. That is okay. In a situation like this, the correct response should involve the effort and hard work required to figure out the answer. The fundamental lesson in any maker-based class or club should be that hard work is what creates success. Smart people don’t invent things. Hard-working people do.
In the coming months, we will be writing additional blog posts and looking at some particular resources, devices, and projects related to education within the maker movement. For some more immediate resources check out Make magazine, Maker Faire, or contact your local maker community.