The impulse to create is one of the most basic human drives. As far back as the Stone Age, we were using materials in our environment to fashion tools for solving the problems we encountered. And in the millions of years since then, we have never stopped creating. In fact, the rise of civilization is largely defined by the progress of technology of one kind or another.
Today, the availability of affordable constructive technology and the ability to share online has fueled the latest evolutionary spurt in this facet of human development. New tools that enable hands-on learning — 3D printers, robotics, microprocessors, wearable computers, e-textiles, “smart” materials and new programming languages — are giving individuals the power to invent. We’re not just talking about adults. Children of all ages can use these tools to move from passive receivers of knowledge to real-world makers. This has the potential to completely revolutionize education as we know it.
Welcome to the maker movement
The key to the explosion of the maker movement is accessibility. Today ingenious new inventions are affordable and often free. Anyone can find and share tools, instructions and ideas online, where a vibrant community of hundreds of thousands of global problem solvers congregates — when they’re not collaborating face to face.
In 2013, there were more than 100 Maker Faires — “the greatest show-and-tells on earth” — and Mini Maker Faires across the globe. At last year’s Maker Faire in San Mateo, California, more than 150,000 children and adults gathered over a weekend to make things, show off, challenge one another, laugh, play, invent, tinker, solve problems and inspire.
In this magical environment full of fire-breathing sculptures; cupcake cars; bicycle-powered rock bands; soda and Mentos–propelled fountains; and workshops in programming, soldering, welding, lock-picking, knitting, crocheting and robot making, it is expertise — rather than the age of the expert — that is the coin of the realm. Makers are constructing knowledge as they build physical artifacts that have real-world value.
Making in the classroom
Fortunately for educators, making overlaps with the natural inclination of children to learn by doing. The maker movement values human passion, capability and the ability to make things happen and solve problems anywhere, anytime.
Classrooms that celebrate the process of design and making, which includes overcoming challenges, produce students who start to believe they can solve any problem. Students learn to trust themselves as competent problem solvers who don’t need to be told what to do next. This stance can be a crucial change for children who are used to getting explicit directions every minute of every day. It can also illuminate for teachers how authentic assessment can really work in the classroom.
The learning-by-doing approach also has precedents in education: project-based learning, Jean Piaget’s constructivism and Seymour Papert’s constructionism. These theories explain the remarkable accomplishments of young makers and remind educators that every classroom needs to be a place where, as Piaget taught, “knowledge is a consequence of experience.”
Papert’s theory of learning provides the theoretical basis for making, which is a stance toward learning that is predicated on the active construction of a shareable artifact. Making asks teachers to create settings where students are, for example, mathematicians rather than passive receivers of math instruction.
Papert also introduced the metaphor of “computer as material,” part of a continuum of materials used to make tangible artifacts and ideas. This continuum spans everything from common arts-and-craft supplies to cutting-edge technology.
Project-based learning. Some of the time-honored practices that were common in classrooms a generation ago — art, music, drama, woodshop, sewing, cooking, playing with and using real tools and craft materials — need to return to the daily experience of children trapped in schools with no time for anything but test prep. For too long, schools have undervalued learning with one’s hands. Schools must stop sorting kids into academic or vocational tracks because such distinctions no longer make sense. Many of the same technologies, process skills and conceptual understandings are found in the physics lab, art studio and auto shop.
The key to making is using authentic tools to create meaningful projects. For the first time, students can use their own powerful ideas to create real things, not just make-believe models.
Personal fabrication. Until recently, the only things you could make with a computer resided on the screen or paper. Today, additive (3D printers) and subtractive (laser cutters, vinyl cutters, computer-controlled mills and lathes) technologies allow users to design an object on the computer and “print” it out in a variety of materials.
Websites such as thingiverse.comare teeming with STL files that are compatible with most 3D printers and allow users to “remix” physical objects. 3D scanners can also turn existing objects into computer files that you can then modify and print out into new objects. Kids can print replacement parts for their bikes, limbs for their dolls or that Lego piece they wish existed. You can already print many of the parts to build a 3D printer on a 3D printer. And soon you will be able to print circuitry with conductive ink that you can turn into objects with embedded microcontrollers.
The most significant development in personal fabrication may be 3D design software. Once too complex for most users, now software like cloud-based TinkerCAD and SketchUp put 3D design within students’ reach. Among other things, this will allow us to concretize mathematics instruction: Instead of having to memorize an abstract formula to calculate the volume of a pyramid, for example, you’ll be able to learn it while creating a pyramid that you can hold in your hand.
Physical computing. The ability to embed interactivity or intelligence into everyday objects is another aspect of the maker trend. Robotics may be the best-known form of this. Robotics kits, like those made by Lego and Vex, hide all the messy electronics and limit you to already set projects and materials. But microcontrollers like the Arduino make circuitry more transparent, increasing students’ understanding of electronics.
They also expand the range of possible projects because you can combine them with items from your environment, such as broken toys, craft materials or appliance parts, to construct inventions that interact with their surroundings. Microcontrollers are also surprisingly affordable. They continually increase in power and functionality while the cost remains low — about $25 for the most popular Arduino standard board. The web is also full of free “sketches,” short programs you can use as is or modify to control your projects.
To be able to assist students, teachers will need to have a good conceptual understanding of how microcontrollers work, because they’re always changing. For instance, the blue board you bought last month could now be red and have the pins in a slightly different location. Luckily, student leaders can learn these new technologies, increasing your school’s pool of expertise while building their own skill sets and confidence.
Another exciting development is new ways to create electronic circuitry. We have taken electronics for granted for so long that most kids know little about this phenomenon that shapes our lives. Now they can learn the basics while making their own interactive greeting cards and hand-drawn or light-up pop-up books with conductive pens, Circuit Stickers and metallic tape. They can whip up homemade squishy circuit dough to make electrified sculptures. They can create wearable projects by sewing the machine-washable Lilypad Arduino into fabric. And with the MaKey MaKey, they can turn Play-Doh into a keyboard and mouse, create a drum set out of bananas or a piano out of the school’s stairs, and control a PowerPoint presentation with a croissant.
Computer programming. Every child needs experience programming computers, and not just for their future careers. This important skill plays a major role in many other disciplines, and it can give students control over their increasingly technological world. Computer programming even prepares students to be better citizens in an age dominated by debates over privacy, intellectual property, polling and investment in the computer-based modeling that’s central to scientific inquiry.
Advocacy events like the Hour of Code represent progress, but the truth is, an hour of anything is insufficient. Programming is a skill developed over long periods of time. It is like learning to write, paint or dance. You become a better programmer by programming, and access to a teacher with expertise doesn’t hurt.
A maker option for school computing
The ed tech community is engaged in a seemingly endless battle over what device provides the most bang for your district’s buck — laptops, iPads or Chromebooks. Yet there is now another option: microcomputers.
Eben Upton was a computer science professor at Cambridge when he grew concerned that computer science majors had little experience making things with computers. He imagined producing a computer so inexpensive that universities could give it away to potential students and ask them to show what they made with it when they visited campus for the interview. This idea gave birth to the Raspberry Pi, a baseball-card-sized $35 Linux computer with USB, composite video, Ethernet and HDMI ports.
Unlike a microcontroller, the Raspberry Pi is a complete computer. You can use it to program microcontrollers or interface with them. Connect an old keyboard, mouse and display, and you’re all set to run OpenOffice, Scratch and other software. You can use it to power your home entertainment system, or you can ask a fifth grader to build a Minecraft server with it. New hardware, like the Arduino Yún and Intel Galileo, combine both computer and microcontroller in the same small package.
Makerspaces for all
Classrooms should embrace the joyful approach of Maker Faires by creating space for kids to engage in complex, personally meaningful projects. But some schools seem more willing to spend a lot of money building special makerspaces or fablabs (fabrication labs) to house professional-grade hardware than they are to change classroom practice. The lessons from three decades of computer labs should dissuade us from building a special bunker that kids visit once a week. This is not to say that you should not have a killer makerspace filled with state-of-the-art technology, proper ventilation and comfy working conditions. But you should keep in mind that every classroom can be a makerspace where kids have the materials, time, flexibility and support to learn by doing. Educators need to create space for making in their heads as well as in their classrooms.
They also need to drop any preconceived biases about who can be a maker. The range of potential projects and constructions available to makers supports a diversity of activities,genders and learning styles. When presented with multiple activity centers featuring a variety of materials, boys may gravitate to Arduino and girls to wearable computing/e-textiles. Both activities require engineering, circuitry, microcontroller programming and debugging, and although there may be surface differences in the product, the process is the same. For example, the Flora wearable microcontroller system includes a sewable GPS element that lets your clothing determine your location. Designing a shirt or necklace that warns you of an approaching friend or arrival at your favorite classroom may include more complex engineering and computing challenges than your standard robotics competition, and it may appeal to children who would otherwise miss out on such learning opportunities.
Our colleague, Sylvia Todd, age 12, has done as much as anyone to inspire girls to engage in engineering projects through her popular website, Super Awesome Sylvia’s Super Awesome Maker Show. Millions of viewers have learned about the joy and power of making from her since she produced her first video at age 8. Scratch users have also shared more than 4 million projects online — a testament to the creativity of kids.
Much of what is presented as school technology is concerned with doing work more efficiently. But when educators embrace a more expansive view of computing, provide access to a variety of high- and low-tech construction materials, and encourage choice in project selection, a larger population of children will enjoy rewarding computing experiences. These experiences may not result in more professional computer programmers, but they will produce more adults who are capable of understanding and mastering their increasingly technological world. If you care about equity or closing the digital divide, you will advocate for all children to have rich computer programming experiences with a competent teacher.
Time for change
Schools usually do not consider the worldview of their new kindergartners. Before they start school, many children have already used Skype or FaceTime to communicate with others over great distances. They already know that when they have a question, an answer is just a click away.
A kid who has had the ability to Google anything since she was a toddler has a different sense of herself as a learner. Unfortunately, this image of learning as an active personal process may be in stark opposition to what she will experience in a “standards-based” school, where the teacher and textbook are the limits of allowed expertise. When a child can 3D print and program her toys at home, school as it currently exists will feel like an episode of “Land of the Lost.”
The maker movement treats children as if they were competent. Too many schools do not. Making builds on each child’s passion by connecting their whole being with constructive materials in a flow that results in fantastic artifacts that almost always exceed our expectations. We want our kids so engaged in projects that they lose track of time or wake up in the middle of the night counting the minutes until they get to return to school. Never before have there been more exciting materials and technology for children to use as intellectual laboratories or vehicles for self-expression. You can empower your students while preparing them to solve problems their teachers never anticipated by embracing the tools, passion and projects of the maker movement.