A school library might not be the most obvious place to find kids building robots. But this year, Miriam Klein, a librarian and English teacher in the Cornell School District outside of Pittsburgh, is planning to use her district’s brand new Hummingbird robotics kits in the classroom to build characters from stories her students read. Using cardboard, pipe cleaners, and whatever else they come up with, along with the equipment in the kit (motors, LED lights, digital sensors), created by Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE lab, the kids will bring their characters to life.

The infectious enthusiasm Klein and hordes of teachers around the country have for hands-on projects echoes that of the maker movement, a growing network of DIY and making enthusiasts building everything from marshmallow cannons to hovercrafts in garages, at Maker Faires, and state-of-the-art makeshops. Leveraging kids’ natural inclination to tinker, the maker movement has found its way into classrooms. In Pittsburgh and around the country, educators are encouraging kids to experiment, building imperative skills in STEAM subjects and spurring lifelong interests that will hopefully one day lead to careers.

Further encouraging Klein’s plans for this year is a two-week professional development camp she attended in July, MobileQuest CoLab, organized by the Institute of Play. The program taught educators and students the basics of game design. But the games weren’t necessarily played on devices—many were hands-on, puzzle-like games such as tossing a ping-pong ball down a flight of stairs into cups. They then often incorporated an element of technology like a stopwatch or QR code scanner.

During MobileQuest, Klein saw students owning their ideas in a way she’d only seen in her creative writing classes. Witnessing that ownership, she says, is what excites her most about the hands-on projects and game design she’s envisioning for her classroom this year.

“My idea of hands-on learning is sort of controlled chaos and then learning to accept chaos,” Klein says. Like proponents of the maker movement, she believes that in an environment conducive to hands-on learning a teacher acts as a facilitator rather than instructor, encouraging collaboration and ensuring everyone’s voices are heard.

Campers at MobileQuest trying out inflatable dice / Ben: Filio

Photo: Ben Filio

Chris Foster, a Business, Computer and Information Technology teacher at Elizabeth Forward Middle School in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, is also looking ahead and developing ideas for hands-on learning this year. As part of his school’s new program called the Dream Factory, students will have access to a 3D printer. The students get to experiment with digital and physical materials to create the inventions of their dreams. Foster is planning ways to encourage them to think creatively about what they create, for example by having students wear blindfolds while they hold objects in order to use all their senses in brainstorming possible iterations.

“If they don’t reach the goal the first time, after taking suggestions, they try again. I think that’s a change,” Foster says of the difference he’s seen between project-based learning and more traditional pedagogy. He’s seen students dread revising assignments, but an environment and culture embracing hands-on learning and making alters the meaning of “revisions” altogether. “If you build this kind of atmosphere and environment in a class from the very beginning, I think students are more apt to take suggestions from their classmates and teachers and go back to create a better product.”

As maker-expert and educator Gary Stager explains in his new book with co-author Sylvia Libow Martinez, “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” learning through making and inventing isn’t new. But its use is gaining renewed emphasis among educators, fueled by the tools and technology we can now put into kids’ hands.

Stager and Libow Martinez call these technologies—specifically fabrication, computing and computer science—“game changers.”

“The excitement about these new technologies will reanimate the best traditions of progressive education in classrooms, of learning by doing, of working on meaningful projects, of developing agency and becoming lost in the flow of something you care about,” Stager writes.

He points to a student in Australia who wrote a computer program that drew complex, geometric shapes and then sporadically teleported them into a black hole. Letting students follow their own interests and creative urges encourages them to be self-directed, Stager says, and prepares them for an outside world where problems are not multiple choice.

“At the core, I think the goal of teachers and schooling in general is to prepare kids to solve problems that teachers and the curriculum never even anticipated,” Stager says.

“[Making] is intrinsic, whereas a lot of traditional, formal school is motivated by extrinsic measures, such as grades,” Dale Dougherty, founder of MAKE Magazine, says in the short documentary “We Are Makers.” “Shifting that control from the teacher or the expert to the participant to the non-expert, the student, that’s the real big difference here.”

Teachers and makers have seen firsthand how kids develop agency by making. Now, researchers are heading out into makerspaces and classrooms to delve into how and why making fosters this kind of agency and excitement.

With support from the National Science Foundation, Erica Halverson, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is embarking on a study of environments that foster creativity and learning. The goal is to understand the difference, if there is any, between the culture of makerspaces and the act of making. What exactly fosters learning? Is the making itself enough to drive learning, or does the culture of a makerspace impart a sense of agency in kids, empowering them to explore and tinker? What Halverson and her team find will have implications for how to further move making into classrooms.

Makeshop at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

To answer their questions, Halverson’s team is using the Makeshop at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh as their laboratory. The Makeshop includes woodworking tools, circuitry, sewing materials, and animation tools, plus experts who can help kids and their families out with projects.

“More than any other children’s museum, they’re committed to the maker culture as a part of their mission,” Halverson said. “I didn’t know much about children’s museums before I started this project, but [Museum Director] Jane Werner is the queen of children’s museums. She’s forward-thinking and has invested so much time in the development of Makeshop as something distinct from the typical arts/crafts space in their museum—it’s an amazing place.”

Kylie Peppler, an assistant professor of learning sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the head of the Make to Learn Initiative, is developing a white paper on making and its guiding learning theories.

Peppler said making is so exciting because “the act of construction externalizes what kids know, and allows them to reflect on the designing and action. The externalizing of your ideas is really productive for learning and connecting with other people.”

The interests hands-on learning sparks are sometimes a beeline to a career.

Peppler points out that “Ninety percent of the time you talk to an engineer, the experience of making a boat in eighth grade was what sparked their interest in engineering.”

“We as educators try to make our lectures engaging, but when we allow people to make something, it’s completely transformative. You don’t have to fight for kids’ attention when making,” Peppler said.

Stager echoed Peppler’s belief that making is intrinsically motivating for kids. He recalled a group of three 10-year-old girls who, after Stager charged their fifth grade class with the challenge, came back two days later with a computer program they wrote that drew any fraction as pieces of a circle.

“I’m not surprised when kids do extraordinary things,” Stager said. “I’m surprised when adults are surprised at kids doing extraordinary things.”