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December 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 4

Making It Happen

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Maker activities can bring creativity and application to STEM learning.

Instructional StrategiesTechnology
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Today's students need to be prepared for future careers and workplaces in which their factual knowledge may not be as important as the way they can apply that knowledge. This is one of the reasons why maker education, in which students get hands-on, collaborative learning experiences and solve authentic problems, is gaining popularity in many schools. "Making" can be a powerful gateway into STEM learning, and it can incorporate the arts and boost creative thinking.
And yet, I have heard from many teachers who are wary of integrating maker education into their classrooms. "You need high-tech devices, and I don't have access to that," they'll say. Or, "That's beyond my reach."
So how can we enable maker education to be more accessible for teachers, specialists, and librarians? For starters, we need a more inclusive definition. We need all our educators to understand that entry into maker-education experiences doesn't need to come through high-tech devices such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and robotics. Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame, and a maker movement icon, has this to say about making:
What is making? It is a term for an old thing, it is a new term for an old thing. Let me be really clear, making is not simply 3D printing, Art Lino, Raspberry Pi, LEDs, robots, laser and vinyl cutters. It's not simply carpentry and welding and sculpting and duct tape and drones. Making is also writing and dance and filmmaking and singing and photography and cosplay. Every single time you make something from you that didn't exist in the world, you are making. Making is important; it's empowering. It is invigorating, but why? There are lots of results that are good that come from making. We improve the world around us. We show people how much we care about them. We solve problems, both personal and societal. (Lomasny, 2016)

So You Want to Be a Maker?

Before we go into the shifts that educators need to make to take on maker projects, let's look more closely at why making works so well. First, and perhaps most important, maker activities, which can be integrated into many content areas, may be a gateway for students who were not interested in certain content areas in the past. Students who are interested in science may get excited about language arts through writing about their experiments. Students who enjoy and excel at language arts may become more interested in STEM when they are asked to talk about their maker projects with classmates, record videos and podcasts about them, and/or write blogs or social media posts that describe them.
Making enhances skills related to both creativity and STEM because effective maker activities have the following characteristics:
The activities are open-ended. This means that they are open to learner interpretation, and the creations become as diverse as the students creating them. Learners develop divergent thinking skills, which is at the heart of creativity. For example, when students are asked to create Squishy Circuits, which combine Playdoh or conductive dough with electronic circuits, they make everything from food items to animals to iconic video game symbols and characters. They are instructed how to make the Squishy Circuits but are not told what to make. Their creativity and divergent thinking skills flourish due to the open-ended nature of this project.
They require active learner participation. In maker activities, learners are not passive recipients of information. This translates into increased creativity, motivation, curiosity, and excitement, and ultimately deeper learning. The process of learning becomes the focus, so the learners develop skills such as self-direction, dealing with ambiguity, taking initiative, locating resources, and asking for help; skills that can be transferred to all learning endeavors. Maker education and STEM activities become about the hows of learning rather than the whats.
They are hands-on, experiential, and engage the senses. In a 2014 survey, 52 percent of Americans listed active participation through hands-on training as the best learning method. "Students who practice what they're learning in a hands-on environment can often retain much more information when compared with sitting passively in a lecture room, so it's not a surprise that hands-on training is the overwhelming favorite" (Corinthian Colleges, 2014).
They reflect the authentic experiences that STEM professionals use in their jobs. Learning about science, technology, engineering, or math from a textbook may assist learners in developing some foundational knowledge related to those disciplines, but it doesn't quite teach them the skills that STEM professionals and practitioners use as part of their everyday jobs. STEM professionals are often challenged to work with ill-defined problems like how to build a better "widget"; how to develop a stronger bridge or building; or how to create a more effective technology. To resolve these problems, they rely on out-of-the-box thinking, innovation, perseverance, problem solving, and communication skills. Maker-based STEM activities ask students to use these same skills. An activity that exemplifies this is the great egg drop, where students, working in small groups, are given a raw egg, 25 straws, and 5 feet of masking tape. They must make a protective nest for the egg so that when it is dropped from a height of 5 to 20 feet, the egg will remain intact.

Think Like a Maker

Maker activities have great potential to engage students and enhance their learning. However, they do take time, planning, patience, and persistence to implement. The qualities or roles of the maker educator may differ from those that an educator is used to exercising in their regular classrooms. Effectively implementing maker activities involves the teacher developing a maker mindset. Here are some ways to do that.
Focus on process rather than product. The goal for maker-based STEM activities is not a worksheet or test with expected correct answers or a paper that is judged by a rubric with very specific criteria. The goal is to help students develop skills related to the process of learning, such as evaluation and self-regulation; use of books, online resources, and peers; and innovative and growth mindsets for following the projects through to completion. To truly focus on the process rather than products of learning, the educator needs to let go of expectations about the specific products that should be produced by the students. "Interest in the maker movement by educators is about creativity, yes, but also about honoring how people really learn" (Martinez, 2018).
Accept that you need to do lots of planning and preparation prior to the actual making by the students during class time. Finding or creating maker activities and preparing the materials takes time. The teacher must do a lot of work prior to the instructional time, while the students do the bulk of the work during instructional time. Maker educators believe that students should be working a lot harder than the teacher during class time. And that takes time and preparation. The payoff for the teacher is that student engagement hovers around 100 percent, which translates into higher student creativity, joy, and excitement for being in class.
Embrace failure and iteration as part of the making process. Maker educators understand and normalize failure. To develop a maker educator mindset, teachers need to move away from the belief that students demonstrate their learning through tests and papers that often ask for single, correct answers and move toward a belief that students work toward mastery of a process or concept. They encourage their learners to make several attempts to improve their maker projects.
Understand that learning is often messy and chaotic. Maker education activities are often loud, messy, and frenetic, meaning the educator needs to let go of traditional expectations for order in the classroom. Someone walking into such a classroom may find it difficult to find the teacher at first, as the students are the ones doing most of the talking and doing. As long as the learners are focused on the task at hand, then the seemingly chaotic learning environment should be looked on as productive and beneficial to learning.

No 3D Printers Needed

There are many examples of inexpensive and fun maker activities that educators can use for their classrooms. I have been aggregating these types of activities at www.makereducation.com.
One popular project used in many schools and libraries is toy hacking or take-aparts. Students are given older battery-operated and electronic toys, which can be acquired through donations or found at garage sales or thrift stores. The students are provided with simple tools such as screwdrivers, pliers, wire cutters, and hammers and asked break down the toys to their simplest components, making sketches of them as they go. They then attempt to repurpose the components as prototypes for new toys or devices. This task is adaptable for different age groups. Younger kids can use hot glue guns, while older learners can make working prototypes through electronic circuitry and soldering. For further learning, students can create and present a business plan for their repurposed toys, name the device, create directions for how to use it, figure out the target market, and determine how much it would cost to make and sell.
Another highly engaging, inexpensive maker activity is paper circuits. As the name implies, this activity involves making circuits on paper. Students can use copper tape, and coin batteries to light up LEDs on the paper. Paper circuits can be used to add lights to drawings, origami, greeting cards, pop-up books, model houses or cities, and costumes.

The Standards Connections

For making to gain entry into and momentum within school environments, projects must be aligned to accepted standards. Any seemingly new curriculum or instructional strategy will be perceived by many administrators and teachers as just fluff or nonessential unless it can be demonstrated that it meets the standards that drive the school's curriculum.
The Next Generation Science Standards have become the gold star framework for K–12 science instruction throughout the United States, and creativity is one of the most important criteria for many of these standards. The revised International Society for Technology Education (ISTE) Standards for students have a stronger focus on empowering student voice; ensuring that learning is a student-driven process; and asking students to be innovative designers, all of which are in line with the goals and activities related to maker education (ISTE, n.d.).
Both the toy hacking and paper circuits activities meet the standards of the NGSS and the ISTE. Science and technology are addressed through learning how the toys are made and examining their inner workings; engineering is addressed through prototyping or building a new toy or device from the parts; and math is used by figuring out dimensions, pricing, and electrical usage (for older kids). Design and creativity come through as students sketch out ideas for their new toy, game, or invention; and then create a prototype for it from the individual toy parts. The NGSS and ISTE standards for art and design are addressed in paper circuits as students learn how circuits work and integrate them to make art projects like drawings, pop-up cards, origami of their own creative designs.

Engaging All Students

When activities combine science, technology, engineering, and math with writing and the arts, not only are cross-curricular standards addressed, but there is also the potential to engage every student. Maker activities do not have to use fancy equipment or cost a lot of money. If an educator can take the time to find and implement maker activities in her classroom, she will allow her students to develop the skills they need now and in the future: creativity, dealing with ill-defined problems, perseverance, and grit. These are the skills that effective 21st century learners and employees need to be successful at their crafts and endeavors.
References

Corinthian Colleges. (2014, January 29). Majority of Americans prefer hands-on training in educational settings, survey finds. Retrieved from https://globenewswire.com/news-release/2014/01/29/605590/10065857/en/Majority-of-Americans-Prefer-Hands-On-Training-in-Educational-Settings-Survey-Finds.html

ISTE. (n.d.) ISTE Standards for students. Retrieved from www.iste.org/standards/for-students

Lomasney, K. (2016, May 16). Transcript: Adam Savage's 2016 Bay Area Maker Faire talk. Retrieved from www.tested.com/art/makers/572766-transcript-adam-savages-2016-bay-area-maker-faire-talk/

Martinez, S. (2018, July 26). Creativity and making. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@sylvialibow/creativity-and-making-113df29f18c4

Jackie Gerstein teaches graduate-level online courses for Walden, Westerns Governors, and Boise State Universities, and she teaches gifted education for Santa Fe Public Schools. Her motto is "I don't do teaching for a living; I live teaching as my doing, and technology has amplified my passion for doing so." Her background includes a strong focus on experiential learning, which she brings into all of her teaching. Gerstein believes that one of the roles and responsibilities of the 21st century educator is to share resources, ideas, and instructional strategies with other educators.

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